Woody Allen does not look like a samurai. He looks, at 77, like a Woody Allen action doll, so tiny and iconic you have to sit on your hands so as not to pick him up and put him on the mantelpiece. His green shirt balloons round his body, baggy slacks winched up high. I'm lucky I have a morning slot, he says, extending dinky fingers – these days, he's snoring by four. He smiles mildly, left eye creased, hearing aid in one ear. The world knows Woody as a lover not a fighter. As he approaches 80, that hasn't changed
And yet it is to a Japanese assassin, a stone-cold swordsman, that his two most recent collaborators compare him. John Turturro, who directed Allen as an unlikely pimp in the forthcoming Fading Gigolo, says it first. "Sure, a samurai," he shrugs. "He's one of the toughest people I've met." Then Cate Blanchett, whom Allen directed in Blue Jasmine. She seizes on the word with something approaching relief. "Yeah! A very little samurai with glasses. I think he'd like that description."
He doesn't. Or, at least, he doesn't recognise it. It takes three takes before he twigs what I'm saying. "A samurai?" he says, finally. "I'd hardly say a samurai." He laughs, aghast. But they're right. Woody is a warrior. He just doesn't know it yet.
The first shock of his new film is its quality. Our critic Peter Bradshaw gave Blue Jasmine five stars and hailed it as his best in 20 years. For the Allen aficionado, accustomed to diminishing returns, it feels less like the oft-hailed "return to form" than a minor miracle.
Its ferocity is the second. Midnight in Paris, his biggest box-office earner to date, might have lulled you into assuming late-stage Allen was pipe-and-slippers stuff. But Blue Jasmine is a bruiser of a movie, a Greek tragedy that dispatches a Park Avenue princess with a massive slap.
The idea came from Soon-Yi, his wife of 16 years, who told him about the friend of a friend – the wife of a financier who imploded after learning her husband was unfaithful and involved in Ponzi-ish fraud. Critics have feasted on the age-of-Madoff topicality. Allen is unconvinced.
"No. I had none of that in mind," he says. "I don't engage with public events any more than I ever did. In real life of course I vote, I campaign for people I like, I'm interested in public events. But in writing I'm not, and I wasn't here in any way. It's strictly accidental."
Jasmine, broke and shaky, goes to stay with adopted sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) in her boxy San Francisco flat. Doom isn't definite. She scrapes a job as a dental receptionist, attracts a glossy suitor in Peter Sarsgaard. But, in the background, we're drip-fed details of what went wrong before. And, almost as ominous, we see the attempts of shelf-stacker Ginger, under Jasmine's influence, to swap her car-mechanic fiance, Chilli, for a more middle-class model.
OK: it's not topical. And Allen is sceptical about theories that say it's a modern spin on A Streetcar Named Desire. So maybe it's a public service broadcast? A warning for siblings who might egg each other over the precipice? (Allen and Soon Yi have two adoptive daughters of their own, now teenagers.)
Allen shuts the lid politely. "A cautionary fable? No. I just thought it was an interesting psychological situation for a woman to be in. This is not a character I'd have written 40 years ago. I wouldn't have had the skill to do it, and I didn't come in contact with this type of woman until I got older, because I live in an upscale neighbourhood in New York."
Allen's career can be charted through his gender adventures. In his "early, funny" films, women were sexy accessories. Then came the Diane Keaton years and the Mia Farrow era, and a stream of female characters that rank as some of the most richly and compassionately realised ever.Following the Farrow split in 1992, a slide back towards stereotype. The love letters regressed into caricatures. And now, out of nowhere, a masterpiece.
Allen has spoken before about his fondness for "kamikaze women", who destroy you in the fallout; Jasmine is cut from the same cloth, yet untroubled by charm. As the film unfolds, you expect revelations that will heighten your sympathy. What you get is further incriminating evidence. It's a character study. It's also character assassination.
I was surprised, I say, he wasn't more on side with someone who seeks solace in a fantasy world. "Well, you're just asking for trouble, if you do that," he says, concern in his voice. "It's very seductive and I've done it a certain amount, but it does take a terrific toll. If you try and live your life with other people in offices and in the street and in your social intercourse I think it can be brutal."
Jasmine forever protests it is feelings which maketh the man, not hard facts. Again, not total anathema to Allen, you'd think. But he's adamantly anti. "Ninety-nine per cent of decisions are predicated on feelings – instinctive, emotional, fears, conflicts, unresolved childhood problems. They're our dominant motivating factor, not reason or rationality or common sense. And that's why the world is in a terrible, terrible state. Human relations are hard and brutal and painful, and the world is in a dreadful state politically. And that's because feelings govern almost everything in every sphere."
It is in giving in to them that Jasmine seals her fate. At a pivotal moment, she succumbs to what Allen calls, in both script and conversation, a "tantrum". That's what snaps his tolerance. "She could have gotten a divorce, forgiven him, had a talk with him, moved out of the house. But she just hit the ceiling blindly and went on a rampage that brought destruction upon her whole household. She never stopped to think out the consequences of her raging moment. You see tantrums in adults all the time. You're driving on the highway and a car bumps you and the driver gets out and he's ready to tear your head off."
But do some people have a greater propensity for self-destruction? "Yes, absolutely." Why? "Well, I think that's genetic. Or at least somewhat genetic and somewhat nurture. The genetic component works in terms of a proclivity towards tantrums and depending on the kind of childhood they've had, how much rage they assimilate and injustices and terrible things or perceived failure work together on you as you grow up."
Allen may have witnessed such combustions. But he seems forever unflappable. Sure, he plays neurotics, but beneath that twitchy exterior there's a clear head, sturdy heart and – according to Diane Keaton – "balls of steel". He prizes poise, particularly in himself.
"I think he's incredibly disciplined," says Blanchett, backing up that samurai theory. "People talk about how hands-off he is and how he likes to give actors free rein but he knows exactly what he doesn't want. He eats the same thing for breakfast, wears the same clothes every day. I mean, he washes them – but he has 20 of that same Ralph Lauren silhouette."
And such intensity of focus doesn't sit ill with Allen's self-deprecation. The more you really do think that "80% of success is showing up," the more organise your life around arriving on time. The virtues of graft were drummed in by his parents, Nettie, a bookkeeper and Martin, an engraver – so successfully that at 17 Woody was earning more than them both combined, rattling out gags for comedians and columnists. By 19, he was on $1,500 a week and working for Sid Caesar. He still makes a film a year, on time, on budget, like clockwork. (When we first meet in Paris, he's just finished shooting a Riviera romance with Colin Firth and Emma Stone. A fortnight later, we speak on the phone, and he's fresh from finishing the rough cut.)
This traditionalism can take you aback. It's easy to forget, watching him talk, viewing old films, even seeing him goof about with a gaggle of kids in Fading Gigolo, that Allen is the product of pre-war New York. At one point, I'm disparaging about Jasmine's attempts to coat-tail up the social ladder. But, says Allen, women are entitled to feel entitled.
"I think it's a reasonable feeling, the hope to meet somebody who can give them a life of some security and enjoyment. Someone who'll give them something better than they have – or, in upper-class families, at least as good as what they have. They don't wanna marry down. I imagine that would be not too thrilling a proposition."
He chuckles dryly. Men have long had it more straightforward, he thinks. "They feel they have more control. They'll get a job or they'll steal the money or they'll do something to better their circumstances. They're not dependent on their spouse for improvement.
"Now, of course, feminists changed all of that, which is great. But they didn't change it for every class or for every woman. There are still deep roots women are influenced by. They feel they'll grow up, they'll go to school, they'll meet some guy and he will take over the reins. They may do some work but they're not going to head up a law firm or something – they won't have time, raising the kids. Guys are more used to the business of making their own lives and women have traditionally married men who they feel have an obligation to take care of them in some way."
So how does that make men feel? "I don't think that men have been comfortable with feminist progress," he says, unblinking. "They're used to growing up in a society where women have a role to play and so do the men. Some enlightened men have welcomed and encouraged and supported it. But I'm not so sure if you look deeply even into them that it hasn't been a little bit of an effort to accept women in roles that they're completely entitled to. If you asked most men in the privacy of their own home they might say: I liked it better when a woman got married and took care of the kids and I went out to work and the equation was clearly defined. Women should be free to have anything and everything they want in terms of all of those rights. It should be a given, not be a privilege. But it is undoing a more primitive situation."
So societal structures are struggling to keep up? "That's true. It's happened very rapidly. I think if you look 100 years from now, the situation will be much more graceful. You won't have the old history to fall back on. You'll have a feminist dynamic to refer to."
He frowns. It's not just genes, not just habit. It's class, too. He lives, he says, in the kind of "sophisticated environment" that makes liberal-mindedness easy. "I've never had to go off to a factory and need somebody home to take care of the children."
The compassion is keen. The friendliness sincere. As he gets older, he says, his fellow-feeling only grows. "Over the years you get to see what a struggle life is for most people, how tough it is, how easy it is to be judgmental and criticise and stand outside of situations and impart your wisdom and judgment. But over the decades I've got more tolerant of people's flaws and mistakes. Everybody makes a lot of them. When you're younger you feel: 'Hey, this person is evil' or 'This person is a jerk' or stupid or 'What's wrong with them?' Then you go through life and you think: 'Well, it's not so easy.' There's a lot of mystery and suffering and complication. Everybody's out there trying to do the best they can. And it's not such an easy business."
He grins again, glasses glinting, soft and sweet. He means it. It's just that it's impossible to reconcile such benevolence with the mercilessness of his new movie. But perhaps that's for the good. The day Allen has it all worked out is the day he might stop making movies. Let's just hope he sticks to his guns. Embraces the way of the sword, even.