In Cassandra’s Dream (Allen, 2007), Woody Allen has remade Crimes & Misdemeanors (by way of Match Point) as a Greek tragedy. As in Crimes, the protagonists get away with murder but then have to deal with the guilt. At the end of Crimes there is discussion of whether existentialist tragedy is realistic. Discussing the murder, a filmmaker character says,
“I would have him turn himself in. Then your movie assumes tragic proportions, because in the absence of a God he is forced to assume that responsibility himself. Then you have tragedy.”
In Crimes this solution is rejected as too Hollywood. But in Cassandra we do have a tragic ending. As in Crimes, the murderer feels guilty, he begins to believe in God for the first time, he wants to confess and be punished, etc. But in Cassandra we have a radically different ending. The murderer doesn’t get away with it. He doesn’t turn himself in, but he does commit suicide.
Has Woody Allen changed his mind about life? Is he now an optimist? Does he now believe there is a God and a meaningful “order of things” as one character puts it in Cassandra? I don’t think so.
As in Match Point, there is much talk in Cassandra about luck. In Match Point, the protagonist says,
“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.”
In Cassandra the focus is on gambling and the ability to play high stakes without losing one’s nerve.
According to Cassandra, we do, in the end, punish ourselves, but this is not existentialist tragedy, it is Greek tragedy. The model is not Dostoyevsky but Euripedes. (Medea is specifically referenced in the film.) The ending is not divine retribution for transgressing the moral law. And the ending is not an existentialist assumption of responsibility. Rather the ending is the tragedy of bad luck.
We live in a world that doesn’t make sense and random things happen. To succeed in this world we must be able to withstand the stress of high stakes gambling. If we can’t do that we’ll simply end up serving those who can. One character sums up this viewpoint well:
“There was a time when I could’ve invested in some ventures, but I didn’t have the stomach for the risk. So I spent my life behind the wheel of a car driving other men.”
We have to be able to face up to the chaos and meaninglessness of a luck-driven world or we will be destroyed by it.
The characters in Cassandra’s Dream didn’t transgress the cosmic law, they transgressed the cosmic chaos. They’re not exactly being punished by the universe. Rather they just looked into the abyss and couldn’t stand what they saw. Woody Allen hasn’t changed his mind in the years since Crimes and Misdemeanors. Cassandra is just another variation on the same theme.