Match Point is not about Luck

This post contains many spoilers for the movie Match Point.

Movies don’t always contain the message their director intends to send, a fact that tends to manifest itself as a strength for good movies rather than a weakness of bad ones. (Go to the great paragraph about American imperialism in this review of Avatar to see a good case of this). Two examples I find are Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (which I’ll write about later) and Woody Allen’s Match Point.

Woody Allen claims that Match Point  is about the role luck and sheer chance play in life. The movie begins with the image of a tennis ball perched on the net; which side it lands is uncertain. Over this image, the story’s protagonist, Chris Wilton, a professional tennis player, born poor, who now serves as an instructor at a tony country club,  narrates the following:

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.

The actual message of the movie is almost exactly the opposite. Fate, not luck, dooms the characters (and particularly our protagonist) to their fate. Woody Allen intended to make a movie showing that success in life comes from luck rather than virtue; really he made a movie that showed that our flawed character drives our destiny, that our selfishness sets us on a path where we are able to achieve our ambitions (despite our lack of virtue) but in the process will wreck the lives of others.

Start with the eponymous match point shown (presumably) at the beginning of the movie. Interestingly, in tennis, (unlike, say, basketball) one point never makes the literal difference between victory and defeat — you always have to win by two. A match point in tennis is one where only one player can clinch the competition; her opponent must recover and win two more points in order to win. A tennis match is decided, not on the basis of luck, but on the consistent ability of the two players in the game. This is part of the reason why Chris’s claim that he could’ve had real success in his professional career had a few spare points gone his way rings so hollow to me.

The way in which Chris seemingly backs into wealth superficially indicates his luck but actually represents a natural progression for him. Here’s how the luck of Chris’s wealth materializes: Chris befriends one of his wealthy clients (Tom Hewitt) over their mutual interest in the opera. He meets Tom’s plain sister Chloe, who’s infatuated by him; he impresses her parents (including her father who hires him as an executive in his company), and he marries her. He married rich; seems like pure luck.

Except, Chris’s marriage is completely predictable and something he constantly strives for in the movie. Throughout the movie, Chris is constantly acting out a role to make him attractive and congenial to the upper classes with whom he constantly mingles at his country club. He forms his friendship with Tom over an interest in opera; he goes on dates with Chloe at the Tate Modern art musem; he expresses his appreciation of Puligny-Montrachet wine (which he constantly offers to pay for). Chris chose tennis (probably not even in England a working class sport)  specifically as a vehicle to escape from his working class background. Chris is unfailingly polite and flattering to Tom and Chloe; he impresses their father with his manner and upper class tastes. The fact that Chloe — presented in the movie as a somewhat boring, shy girl — falls for the handsome, cultured, self-effacing Chris is unsurprising. Given Chris’s ambition, the fact that for money he settles for someone he clearly doesn’t love (he finds their attempts to conceive a child to be a stressful chore) has little to do with luck.

The fact that Chris’s polite, humble demeanor is just an act is startlingly demonstrated in his first encounter with Nola, the American aspiring actress fiancee of Tom Hewitt. The two are at a ping pong table, bantering lightly. Nola jokingly offers to play for a thousand pounds a game. She gently taps her serve over the net, and Chris slams the ball back. Suddenly, he’s playing a different game. He walks over to her side, takes her in his arms (Chris: May I? You have to lean in, and hit through the ball. Nola: Did anyone ever tell you you play a very agressive game? Chris: Did anyone ever tell you you have extremely sensual lips?) This all takes place in the mansion of the woman that Chris is dating.

Nola’s life too is shaped by her character rather than her bad luck. Although she is an actress, she, unlike Chris, is a poor performer. She can’t land a role because she becomes too nervous in her auditions. Tom’s mother (who loves Chris) thinks that Nola’s a spoiled American and unworthy of her son (the word gold-digger is obviously never used but clearly implied). Though it happens offscreen, when the moment of truth comes and Tom asks her to have an abortion, she gives in and is then dumped (Tom will, after all, never really disobey his mother), but another girlfriend Tom impregnates, this one presumably a better actress, uses the pregnancy to get Tom to actually marry her. Nola is doomed to constantly be used and then discarded by others. While she is unlucky to fall in love with a man as driven as Chris (who kills her to keep their eventual affair secret), she was always destined to be taken advantage of.

And what of the pregnancy that forces Chris into such evil? At this point in the story, Chris has begun an affair with Nola (after discovering that Tom had broken up with her); Nola’s become pregnant, and, having been convinced against her will to have two abortions already, demands that Chris divorce Chloe to be with her (and their son). Perhaps one could say this pregnancy is bad luck (for both Chris and Nola), but it appears to me somewhat inevitable. Nola’s always represented passion and danger to Chris; it’s clear in their discussion of the pregnancy that he had insisted on not using a condom during the (presumably many) times they had sex. The very fact that this is Nola’s third pregnancy with a man who ultimately didn’t want to be with her indicates that maybe this occurrence isn’t entirely coincidental. It’s just a fated pattern, playing over and over again.

So then, to preserve his marriage, Chris makes an elaborate plan to kill Nola (he kills her next door neighbor to make it look like a robbery and then kills Nola as he’s leaving). There is supposed to be some sort of luck with him not getting caught (the supposedly robbed jewels he intends to throw away are recovered by a homeless person, creating an airtight explanation of the crime), but I’ve always thought that even without that evidence, it’d be very difficult to prove that he committed the crime (even further investigation to me seems unlikely).

By all accounts Woody Allen intended to make a movie about how life is random; how bad luck can draw all of us into poor choices with awful consequences, or good luck can render even the worst sinner a king. I think he made a movie with in some ways an even more depressing message: our character is our fate, but bad characters do not necessarily have bad fates. Chris Wilton, the protagonist of the movie, ultimately goes on to live the life of dreamed of not in spite but because of the determination he applies on behalf of his own selfishness. Nola dies not really of bad luck, but of her weakness of will and her lack of talent: she doesn’t have the strength to take control of her life nor the skills (nor amorality) to lie as successfully as Chris. Chloe and Tom, perhaps stand-ins for the audience, float by on the ballast of their own mediocrity — observing the evils of the world, they see only luck, when it is really their own apathy and laziness that allow it to exist.

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