A lot happens in the movie, which repeatedly circles back to the question of whether it’s possible to separate the artist from the art, a question that some are asking now of Louis C.K. For Glen, this takes on extra urgency when China begins an undefined relationship with Leslie, who showers her with attention, shopping with her and sweeping her off to Paris. The first time they talk at length, Leslie even defines radical feminism for China, a scene that mirrors another in which Glen delivers a more generalized feminist lesson. Men explaining equality to a young woman is one provocation; another is that Grace defends sexual relations between teenage girls and adult men.
The other sustained provocation is that “I Love You, Daddy” is partly about the Woody Allen Problem. The film’s black-and-white cinematography is an obvious reference to Mr. Allen’s oft-celebrated 1979 film “Manhattan,” in which he plays a comedy writer having an affair with a 17-year-old girl. The title “I Love You, Daddy” refers to China’s repeated declaration to Glen, but it also seems like a nod at Mr. Allen’s expansive influence on comedy. Louis C.K. himself has been compared to Mr. Allen and he appeared in Mr. Allen’s 2013 drama “Blue Jasmine.” “He’s a very big deal in my life,” Louis C.K. said of being cast in that movie. “Since I was a little kid, I loved Woody Allen.”
Has that love soured? Did it sour in 2014, when Mr. Allen was accused by his daughter, Dylan Farrow, of sexually molesting her? However starkly confessional “I Love You, Daddy” sometimes registers as, it can also be seen as an act of symbolic patricide, a way of addressing a tarnished idol. Shortly before it ends, China turns 18 and offers herself to Leslie, who for the first time seems uninterested in her. Perhaps that’s meant to suggest that he doesn’t actually seduce girls or that China, at 18, is now too old for him. Your interpretation may vary, though it’s worth noting that Leslie later enthuses about how wonderful it is to be “loved by a girl and then be rejected by the woman she becomes.”
The line reminds me of one that Mr. Allen’s character, Isaac, tells the now 18-year-old former girlfriend, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), toward the end of “Manhattan”: “I just don’t want that thing I like about you to change.” It’s unclear what he means (her beauty, her youth), though earlier Isaac tells Tracy — after passionately kissing her while they’re out one night in a horse-drawn carriage — that she’s “God’s answer to Job” and “would have ended all argument between them.” God, Isaac says while pointing a finger at Tracy, would have said, “I do a lot of terrible things, but I can also make one of these.”
I was 18 when I saw “Manhattan” and I despised it because I knew that its reveries were built on a lie that few adults, including film critics, seemed willing to acknowledge. Perhaps that’s partly why I appreciated “I Love You, Daddy” the first time I saw it. Louis C.K. seemed to be pointing at Mr. Allen with a queasy homage that was getting at the truth of “Manhattan” even as “I Love You, Daddy” circled — and circled — its own creator’s complicity in female exploitation. The two ideas converge late in the film when Glen meets Leslie, who reveals that he hasn’t seen China in a long time. That’s when Leslie dreamily shares his philosophy about loving girls only to be rejected by the women they become.
It’s an unnerving scene, one that doubtless speaks to how some men view women, but it also speaks, I think, to how the movies see women. How they use and use up young women, at least until they turn 18 or 20 or so when some moviemaker or some suit deems her no longer desirable and turns her putative lack of desirability on her, as if she were responsible for this lack of interest in her. When I watched “I Love You, Daddy” a second time, the jokes no longer landed; its shocks felt uglier, cruder. But for once a filmmaker seemed to be admitting to the misogyny that we know is always there and has often been denied or simply waved off, at times in the name of art.
The revelations about Louis C.K. and others are killing any pretense that any of this is objective. It’s very personal, and it always has been.