Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.5: Woody Allen's Interiors

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen. Today’s entry focuses on Allen’s first dramatic film, 1978’s Interiors.

Grade: 56 (B-)
Given the critical and commercial success of Annie Hall, Woody Allen could now do whatever he wanted. He had made advances as a mature artist in his honest portrayal of the ups and downs of relationships. Rather than repeat himself, he chose to do something completely unexpected: Interiors, a chilly, Ingmar Bergman inspired dramatic film without anything resembling a joke. The film only just made its money back at the box office, but its critical reception was mostly positive, and Allen received his second set of writer-director Academy Award nominations (co-stars Geraldine Page and Maureen Stapleton were also nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively). Interiors has received a mixed reception over time, with some praising its audacious nature and artistic exploration while others dismiss it as a pale imitation of an Ingmar Bergman film. Both parties are correct.
The film centers on a well-to-do New York family: Renata (Diane Keaton) is a successful but rather cold writer who looks down on her husband Frederick (Richard Jordan). Her sister Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) is a rather fickle woman whose indecisiveness irritates her husband Mike (Sam Waterson). Their sister, the mostly absent Flynn (Kristin Griffith), is an actress living out in Hollywood. Their mother, Eve (Page), is a tightly-wound, controlling, unbalanced woman whose mood swings have caused their father, Arthur (E.G. Marshall) to seek a trial separation. Eve thinks highly of Renata’s success and ignores Joey, who cares for her mother too much to lie to her. When Arthur arrives home from Europe with a new fiancĂ©e, the lively Pearl (Stapleton), he asks Eve for a permanent divorce, and the family’s uneasy feelings towards each turn for the worse.
Allen explores a handful of his favorite themes- the end of relationships, religious skepticism, the emptiness of purely intellectual people, analysis (via some shaky disguised monologues from Keaton)- but Interiors is above all about death. Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis shoot the film as if it’s an extended funeral. Eve’s death is inevitable, and any attempt to prolong her life is futile. Renata and Joey care for their mother, in spite of her coldness, but it would honestly be better if she were to pass on. Page plays Eve perfectly, painting a portrait of a very human but decidedly prickly character who seems to almost yearn for death. With the arrival of the livelier, clumsier, much more caring Pearl, Eve’s downfall hastens. Renata and Joey treat Pearl with disdain for reasons both understandable and completely unfair. They’re trying to save their mother, but it’s no use. The gravity of the situation reflects on the guests’ faces at Pearl and Arthur’s wedding; they look so serious that they’re practically at the funeral already. Whatever Interiors’ flaws (and it has plenty), Allen deserves credit for addressing death in a more stark and direct way than he had before.
Allen doesn’t hide his influences in the slightest; his first dramatic film (and first film without him as an actor) is a conscious break from his normal comedic tone in favor of a heightened dramatic realism reminiscent of Anton Chekhov or Eugene O’Neill. The bare bones of the film’s familial drama are not unlike those of Chekhov’s The Seagull or O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night. The film features feuding siblings, chilled relationships, a mentally unstable matriarch (Long Day’s Journey), and the veil of gloom over the proceedings. The Ingmar Bergman influenced direction only adds to the feeling: the coldness of a group of siblings who quickly realize they don’t like each other very much is straight out of 1972’s Cries and Whispers, and the cold marriages in the film are reminiscent of Hour of the Wolf or Scenes from a Marriage.
The film’s studied quality doesn’t feel entirely natural, however. Allen put his own spin on Bergman without losing his voice in Love and Death (and less overtly in Annie Hall), but here he buries his distinguished voice in favor of a Bergman tribute that feels too often like a pale imitation of the real thing. Bergman’s Scandinavian chilliness hid genuine empathy for his characters. That empathy doesn’t extend to very many of Allen’s own intellectuals, who often seem stuffy and repressed without reason. The film’s severely muted tone and high seriousness gives the film a comically humorless feel, almost as if it were a Bergman parody.
It gets worse: Allen’s dialogue is often outright terrible. Allen’s memorable dialogue was gloriously witty in his comedies; here it’s too stylized, too self-conscious, and too obvious. Characters flat-out say whatever they’re thinking at most turns, and there are several points where it’s all too tempting to scream out: “NOBODY TALKS LIKE THAT, WOODY!” How often does one hear one compare a person to their latest book as being “all form, no content”? This is the work of a writer, not a living, breathing person.
The stilted dialogue and mannered direction carries over to the lead performances: strong as Page is, she’s really not the lead, which is rather unfortunate considering how self-consciously serious Keaton and Hurt are. The film’s mostly creaky first half focuses on their lives and relationships before segueing to the superior (if still problematic) second half. Stapleton’s arrival marks a surge in energy sorely lacking in the film’s bloodless first half. She’s a plain and honest woman where the others are mannered, stuffy intellectuals (having her wear brighter colors than everyone else is a bit much, though). All of the sudden, the dialogue and performances become less stiff and the film’s final act gains a cumulative power for a memorable ending.
Interiors is too self-consciously Bergmanesque, and it’s an early example of the Woodman trying way, way too hard. For all its flaws, however, it’s an admirable effort that bridges its way between Annie Hall’s declaration of maturity and the awe-inspiring heights of Manhattan. Woody was still in the middle of his creative peak, not to mention in between his two finest films. Interiors is an important stepping stone in Woody Allen’s career. It’s just not altogether very successful.


  1. It also has an exceptionally bad trailer.

  2. I totally disagree. I believe this to be one his Best Films. Obviously, there were to be comparisons with Bergman, but so what. This movie, on its own, is perfectly acted , directed and written. I don't think a few minor lines make a screenplay "terrible" They are, after all, intellectual and I know many read people who do speak like that. They like to think they are smarter than most other people and Renata is so that character, even though , inside, she is terribly insecure. Geraldine Page, may not be the "Lead", but she is obviously the central character and what a performance she gives. Maureen Stapleton is her equal as the Light Force Pearl. You should give it another try