Match Point was the very first Woody Allen film I ever saw. Of course I’d heard of Woody Allen before but I hadn’t see any of his films. I had started making a concerted effort in high school and college to watch some “classic” cinema yet there are so many films and, as always, so little time. However, in the spring of 2006, my friend Lauren suggested we catch Match Point while it was still playing at our local discount theatre (siiiiiigh…how I miss you Dollar Theatre). I agreed and my life would never be the same – a cinematic obsession was born.
Since that initial showing of Match Point I’ve come to see (and subsequently own) just about every one of Woody Allen’s films. While a few of my friends share my love of Mr. Allen (Lauren included, obviously), I’ve seen the majority of his films with my mom. Mom and I spent many Christmas vacations (one of the huge perks of being a Youth Minister and now a teacher is that “Christmas vacation” is still a thing) with a stack of Woody Allen DVDs. We worked our way through his filmography, discussing and deconstructing all the themes and messages as we’d go. They are all so different!! He shifts effortlessly from the comedic to the dramatic yet all are deeply philosophical. Like Bob Dylan, Woody Allen is one of America’s most prolific artists with a voice and message that is always distinctively his own yet constantly changing. For me, just as Bob Dylan is the consummate America songwriter, Woody Allen is the consummate American filmmaker – expressing life, love, the soul, and (at times) the ridiculous in all its varied forms. All this love began with Match Point and, to this day, it remains one of my all-time favorite films.
When the credits started to roll on that first screening, my mind was blown. I’d never seen a film quite like it before. The philosophical nature was so intentional, so perfectly applied throughout an enthralling, seductive narrative. It was this deep, dark, disturbing, tension-filled masterpiece commenting on wealth, privilege, class, lust, love, morality, aspirations, obsession and still had time to pose THE question – Is life meaningless? – and offer an answer. I couldn’t wait to see it again to begin immersing myself more fully into what it explored. I turned to Lauren and said, “I loved that!” She looked at me and said, “Uh, I hated it.” Lauren clarified, “I came in expecting a light, thoughtful romantic comedy…sort of Annie Hall with tennis. I wasn’t ready for that.” Match Point is a lot of things but “light,” “romantic,” and “comedic” are not among them.
The film follows Chris Wilton (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a former tennis pro who takes a job as a tennis instructor at a swanky club in London. Craving the life of art and culture the city promises, he is happy to become fast friends with Tom Hewett (Matthew Goode). Bonding over a love of music, Tom invites Chris to the opera, where his family has box seats. There Chris meets Tom’s parents Alec (William Stryker Brian Cox) and Eleanor (Penelope Wilton) as well as his sister Chloe (Emily Mortimer). As he is immersed in it, Chris desires the affluence of the Hewett’s lifestyle more and more…while Chloe begins to fall for him. All of this gets complicated as Chris becomes intoxicated with Tom’s American fiancé, Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson). Chris rabidly pursues an affair with Nola, despite his growing relationship (and eventual marriage!) with Chloe. He wants Nola with the same single-minded (and self-serving) relentlessness he applies to his rise into London’s upper crust, fueled by the job Alec offers him. By the end of the film (and yes, I will be talking about the end here so SPOILER ALERT…but, c’mon it came out over ten years ago so I don’t feel guilty), the story will become darker than I ever imagined as Chris takes all he wants from life.
But Match Point holds far more than the cliché familial drama that could fuel a thriller. While the ever-building tension is palpable through nearly the entire film, it’s what’s happening just below the surface that’s so fascinating. Early in the film we see a shot of Chris reading an introduction to Fyodor Dostoyevsky who’s existential classic Crime and Punishment will shape the film thematically. In the basic narrative of the film, this scene is another example of Chris seeking the background needed to participate in the informed, artistic life of London’s 1%. But the shot carries a deeper meaning. Woody Allen is showing the viewer this will be the theme he explores within Match Point. In Crime and Punishment, Dostoyevsky asked two central questions – Is there justice? and Can meaning exist if there is no justice? These questions will drive Match Point as well.
We get this from the very first beat of the film. It opens with a shot of a tennis court and a tennis ball hitting the net before bouncing straight up into the air. Chris narrates, “The man who said, ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net, and for a split second, it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward, and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.”
Tom’s point, about luck and lack of control often leads to the conclusion that life is (or at the very least may be) meaningless. After all, if we control nothing, if all of life is random chance and luck, can there honestly be any true meaning in anything we do or achieve? This point will be further developed when Chris and Chloe meet Tom and Nola for dinner. After Nola laments her lack of luck in getting any acting parts the conversation proceeds:
Tom – “Well you just need a break.”
Chris – “I think it’s important to be lucky in anything.”
Chloe – “Well I don’t believe in luck. I believe in hard work.”
Chris – “Oh, hard work is mandatory but I think everybody’s afraid to admit what a big part luck plays. It seems scientists are confirming more and more that all of existence is hereby blind chance. No purpose, no design.”
Chloe – “Well I don’t care. I love every minute of it!”
Chris – “And I envy you for it.”
Tom – “What is it that Vicky used to say? ‘Despair is the path of least resistance.’ Or something odd…wasn’t it?”
Chris – “I think that faith is the path of least resistance.”
Tom – “Oh God…”
Chloe – “Oh God, oh God…can we change the subject please?”
It is not, Chris asserts, only our lives that are pointless but indeed all of creation. There is no point, purpose, or design to anything in the universe. It is all random chance, chaos, and as a result life’s all about luck. Woody Allen uses this charge of meaningless to make several important points.
First, the affluent life of the Hewetts is presented in the most banal light. We, as a culture, crave wealth. We, in fact, worship wealth. I don’t think Pope Francis was far off the mark when he said our love of wealth has become idolatrous. We tend to presume that money will solve all of our problems. In the immortal words of “Weird Al” Yankovic, “If money can’t buy happiness, well I guess I’ll have to rent it.” Yet there is nothing truly desirable about the wealthy in Match Point. They are presented as fairly trivial people, interested in “giving back” generically but completely unconnected to the real problems (or the real people) of the world. They are boring, disconnected, and at times a bit petty. Wealth, Match Point seems to say, is also meaningless.
Second, Nola Rice’s journey is used to illustrate the utter meaninglessness of our arbitrary cultural standards of beauty. Scarlett Johansson is presented as the seductive ideal when she first appears in the film and, throughout, continues to be the most “beautiful” (by arbitrary cultural standards) character in the film. She has the largest breasts, the smallest waist, the fullest lips…yet there is nothing enviable about her. Despite what culture would have us believe, there’s nothing glamorous about Nola. Rather, she is a fragile, broken girl who is abused by everyone around her. Through the entire film her character is chewed up and spit out. She is used as a trophy (by men who want to be with and be seen with her) and a sexual object (by all the men who want to fuck her (I apologize for the crassness but, given how Nola is used, that word’s connotation is sadly far more accurate than “have sex with” or “make love to”)).
Both Tom and Chris casually cast Nola aside when they no longer need or want her. Tom does so by breaking up with her only to immediately begin dating (and then quickly marry!) Heather (Miranda Raison). It is far, far worse with Chris. After more than a yearlong affair, Nola tells Chris she’s become pregnant. Shaken by the thought of losing all the wealth, privilege, and social status he’s achieved when Nola refuses to give up the baby (and channeling Rodion Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment), Chris decides to murder her.
Finally, in Chris Wilton, the film makes its darkest assertion for the meaninglessness of existence. As protagonists go, Chris is a selfish, conniving, opportunistic, slimy, morally bankrupt character. Through all of Match Point there’s no evidence of Chris caring for anyone other than himself. Sure, he gets along with most people alright. But being pleasant is not the same thing as being compassionate or empathetic. This all culminates in his calculating, ruthless murder of Nola Rice.
Chris tells Nola he’s finally left Chloe and they can be together. As he waits for Nola to return from work, he goes to her apartment complex and murders Mrs. Eastby – the elderly woman who lives across the hall. Chris then steals Mrs. Eastby’s jewelry and prescription drugs while he waits for Nola to return. When she does, he kills her in the hall making it look like Nola was killed as a necessity when she came home and surprised the burglars. Chris is successful in his murders but they haunt him. Unable to sleep, he sits awake in the kitchen and sees Nola and Mrs. Eastby standing there.
Nola – “Chris.”
Chris – “Nola. It wasn’t easy. But when the time came, I could pull the trigger. You never know who your neighbors are until there’s a crisis. You can learn to push the guilt under the rug and go on. You have to. Otherwise it overwhelms you.”
Mrs. Eastby – “And what about me? What about the next door neighbor? I had no involvement in this awful affair. Is there no problem about me having to die, as an innocent bystander?”
Chris – “The innocent are sometimes slain to make way for a grander scheme. You were collateral damage.”
Mrs. Eastby – “So was your own child.”
Chris – “Sophocles said, ‘To never have been born may be the greatest boon of all.’ ”
Nola – “Prepare to pay the price Chris. Your actions were clumsy, full of holes, almost like someone begging to be found out.”
Chris – “It would be fitting, if I were apprehended and punished. At least there would be some small sign of justice, some small measure of hope for the possibility of meaning.”
However…there is no apprehension, no punishment. While the police question him, nothing comes of it. Chris gets away with murder and with that, the defense of a meaningful existence crumbles. As if all this wasn’t darkly symbolic enough, we must remember that the character who does all of this is named Chris Wilkins. As I believed (and then confirmed with this website here), the name “Christopher” comes from the late Greek name Χριστοφορος (Christophoros) meaning “bearing CHRIST.” It is derived from Χριστος (Christos) combined with φερω (phero) “to bear, to carry.” So “Christopher” means “bearing Christ” or “the Christ bearer.” The most cold, calculating, careless character in the whole film is the Christ bearer. I doubt this was an accident and what better way to underscore the meaninglessness of all existence than by having the character who most fully believes that and acts it out carry the name of the Savior?
In all of this, Match Point beautifully illustrates the fundamental struggle with nihilism. The whole point of nihilism, originally, was to underscore – if nothing had any inherent meaning – it could be taken and down and changed when it was no longer serving society. For example, there would be then no inherent meaning or truth to things like racism and sexism so we could legitimately toss them aside when we, as a culture, finally outgrew them. We see this sort of nihilism applied in the film as Woody Allen dismantles the ideas of wealth and beauty to show how arbitrary and inherently meaningless they truly are. However, there is also a risk with nihilism that, once we embrace the idea that nothing has any inherent meaning, than our existence too becomes pointless. Chris’ murder of Nola and Mrs. Eastby highlights this. He believes there is no consequence or justice, no point or purpose, to anything and acts accordingly.
Match Point ends on a dark, heavy note. There is no real justice in life. Even scarier, perhaps there is no real love in life either. No character in the film seems to authentically love anyone else. Perhaps Nola comes closest in her desperate desire to keep her child and make some sort of life with Chris…but she is gunned down, murdered in cold blood by the father of her child. Can there be meaning in an existence without justice or love? No. And Match Point says that’s the world we’re living in. While I don’t (thankfully!!) agree with Woody Allen’s assessment of the world in this film, I couldn’t respect him more for how he presents the idea. His willingness as a filmmaker to tackle such complex ideas, to offer such stark answers, and to make his audience think so much was what made me fall in love with his work the moment I saw Match Point. I’ve been passionately watching, and discussing, Woody Allen’s films ever since.
But wait! The Woody Allen fun isn’t over yet. Be sure to check out Andrew’s post on Match Point today! Also, you can follow Andrew on Twitter if you’d like. (You should. He’s a really nice guy.) Oh and, if you’d like, you can check out last month’s post on Hannah and Her Sisters too.