Zelig (PG)

Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Woody Allen's fake documentary about a "human chameleon" named Leonard Zelig seemed on its first release in 1983 a jeu d'esprit, a clever but evanescent skit on one man's identity crisis.

Today it looks darkly prescient, a rumination on duality and disappearance that resonates the more in our celebrity-driven era. Allen himself plays Zelig, a shy, nondescript man who in the 1920s turns being a nobody into a scientific phenomenon. Using faked and actual newsreel footage alongside talking-head interviews with modern cultural bigwigs (Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, Bruno Bettelheim et al) the film pieces together a witty, absurdist portrait of someone so eager to disembody himself he takes on the appearance of whichever person he's with: gangster, baseball player, prelate, rabbi, jazz musician.

Mia Farrow plays the gentle psychiatrist who takes on his case, and falls in love with him. The dramatic insertions of Allen's face into black-and-white archive footage are wonderfully, giddily amusing. It's an ingenious picture with strong undercurrents of melancholy and moral loneliness: if all that life demands is that we fit in, what hope for individuality?