Woody Allen Waxes Lyrical on ‘Rifkin’s Festival’ at Amiable San Sebastian Presser

Woody Allen
Stewart Cook/Variety

The hearty applause from European journalists at the end of Woody Allen’s online/on-site press conference for “Rifkin’s Festival,” which world premiered on Friday at the San Sebastian Festival, was probably as much for Allen’s career at large as his latest movie in particular.

Opening the festival, and set at the San Sebastian Festival – with at least one scene set in the very Kursaal Center auditorium where the press then caught the film – the movie was received with genteel applause at its end, as well as guffaws at choice gags.

The most obvious delight for the mostly local audience at the Friday’s press screening was also the subject Allen warmed to most in a subsequent press conference: the homage paid by “Rifkin’s Festival” to San Sebastian at large and, more specifically, to its festival.

The Mediapro Studio, which financed much of “Rifkin’s Festival,” wanted a film in Spain and having had “a wonderful time” shooting in Barcelona, Oviedo and Avila, “I remembered the San Sebastian Film Festival and how beautiful and charming it was,” Allen said.

“So, I thought: ‘Why don’t I write a film about San Sebastian,’” he added. “The outstanding thing I recalled was its festival.”

“The most delightful part” of working on “Rifkin’s Festival” was that “my family and myself could spend months in San Sebastian. We loved every second of it,” Allen said. “We would have loved to have duplicated it at the festival, but this dreadful pandemic has ruined everything.”

“Rifkin’s Festival” stars Wallace Shawn and Gina Gershon as Mort and Sue, an on-the-rocks American couple who attend the San Sebastian Festival. There she has an affair with a French director (Louis Garrel), which sends Mort into tailspin – until he meets beautiful local cardiologist, Joanna (Elena Anaya).

A once happy lecturer in film, specializing in Ingmar Bergman and France’s Nouvelle Vague, Mort is now a struggling novelist. His fears of failure, compounded by the question of how to react to Sue’s flirtatiousness with her new beau, play out in Mort’s dreams which become personalized parodies of the films he loves.

The fate of Europe’s art cinema was another source of questions at the press conference. “I grew up on European films,” said Allen. Claude Lelouch’s “A Man and a Woman” –  which inspires one of Mort’s dreams, where he has a romantic tete-a-tete with Joanna in a car – was “one of those European films that had an enormous impact on a young generation of filmmakers coming up [in the U.S.],” he added.

Despite the current contraction of art cinema markets, “artists will emerge and they will be around and be seen on a lower flame, but a longer burning flame than the commercial ones that come and make a lot of money and you never hear of them again afterwards,” Allen argued.

The press conference, like “Rifkin’s Festival,” indeed caught Allen in a fairly upbeat mood. Mort worries about the big things in life such as what it’s all about. “Life is senseless,” says one character who, one senses, could be a stand in for Allen himself. “But that doesn’t mean it’s empty,” the character continues, citing love, family and art.

The press conference also saw Gershon, Anaya and Shawn talk amiably about each other. “Amiable” was in fact the word used by many Spanish online reactions to describe “Rifkin’s Festival.”

It was certainly an amiable conference from the press, with no mention made at all by any journalist of Allen’s disputed abuse, discussed recently by Allen himself in his 2020 memoir, “Apropos of Nothing,” or recent comments by former star Kate Winslet about her regret at having worked with the filmmaker.

Produced by Spain’s The Mediapro Studio, Allen’s own Gravier Productions and Italy’s Wildside, the film will be distributed in Spain by Tripictures, one of the country’s biggest independent producers.

Emilio Mayorga contributed to this article.