Essentially Woody: Interiors

By Reverse Shot | REVERSEBLOG: the reverse shot blog January 9, 2007 at 5:50AM

Considered a failure when it was first released as Woody Allen's first "serious" movie and widely derided as an imitation of Ingmar Bergman, Interiors is an ambiguous portrait of a familiar but rarely dramatized situation: a middle-aged father leaving his wife for another woman when his children are grown. The very American subject matter is quite far from Bergman's violent Swedish eroticism, though the off-putting, arch dialogue sometimes sounds like Ingmar. Allen sketches in the clubby alliances of a family, the on-the-surface resentments, and the longing we feel for the one family member who ignores us; all the detailed self-analysis is chillingly enclosed by Gordon Willis' "perfect" cinematography. Allen's characters here are evasive, selfish Seventies narcissists who boast of their anxiety and are forever ringing variations on, "This is a very bad time for me," or "Dammit, I have my own problems." The most memorable person in the film might be Frederick (Richard Jordan), the ultimate self-loathing, alcoholic writer harrowed by his own lack of talent and driven to write mean reviews of friend's novels out of spite. "It's been a long time since I made love to a woman that I didn't feel inferior to," says Frederick, as he attempts to get some action with his wife's pretty sister. "Or am I being tactless?" he asks, sweetly.
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Considered a failure when it was first released as Woody Allen's first "serious" movie and widely derided as an imitation of Ingmar Bergman, Interiors is an ambiguous portrait of a familiar but rarely dramatized situation: a middle-aged father leaving his wife for another woman when his children are grown. The very American subject matter is quite far from Bergman's violent Swedish eroticism, though the off-putting, arch dialogue sometimes sounds like Ingmar. Allen sketches in the clubby alliances of a family, the on-the-surface resentments, and the longing we feel for the one family member who ignores us; all the detailed self-analysis is chillingly enclosed by Gordon Willis' "perfect" cinematography. Allen's characters here are evasive, selfish Seventies narcissists who boast of their anxiety and are forever ringing variations on, "This is a very bad time for me," or "Dammit, I have my own problems." The most memorable person in the film might be Frederick (Richard Jordan), the ultimate self-loathing, alcoholic writer harrowed by his own lack of talent and driven to write mean reviews of friend's novels out of spite. "It's been a long time since I made love to a woman that I didn't feel inferior to," says Frederick, as he attempts to get some action with his wife's pretty sister. "Or am I being tactless?" he asks, sweetly.

There are jokes in Interiors, but they're as nasty and pitch-black as the ones that dot Stardust Memories and Deconstructing Harry. Perhaps the best, most subtle joke is the classic moment when perfectionist Eve (Geraldine Page), bent on asphyxiation, hesitates for a moment when forced to switch to a thinner, less dramatic brand of tape as she blocks off air on her windows. Funnier yet is the way Page tries to convince her daughters how well she's doing, hilariously insisting that she has found an "inner tranquility" while trying to keep her habitual facial spasms at bay. The central thematic opposition between the wife and the other woman, which stages an inspired Actor's Studio smackdown between Geraldine Page, the twitching queen of Method neuroticism, and Maureen Stapleton, the chief proponent of earthy Method common sense, is rather hard to read. Like Gena Rowlands's later Marion in Another Woman, we're not quite sure how we're supposed to react to Page's girlish, tyrannical Eve, with her schoolgirl sulks and her thin, strangled voice. Clearly she's a cunning, even absurd lunatic who torments her family, yet her search for perfection does start to seem heroic, and it's consistently matched in the film's glacial style of cinematography.

Stapleton's bawdy, precisely observed Pearl, a "vulgarian" in a red dress, is a literal breath of fresh air at the movie's mid-point, bursting in with the likeability and vitality of Allen's early comedies. Yet we don't know quite how to take this simple, clearly uneducated woman: is she a positive, even moral force amid the film's desiccated intellectuals, or a gold-digging interloper invading a crumbling WASP stronghold? And what are we to make of a strange scene where Eve lets her hair down for once and watches a TV show where a man is interviewed about what it means to be Jewish? It's difficult to judge, finally, just why Allen wrote Interiors, and just what he was trying to say with its sometimes tidy yet often unresolved and schematic domestic drama. But it's a film that stays with you, visually and emotionally, and it acts as a bridge to his assured, complex films of the Eighties. Its key image, searingly acted by an apoplectic Page and excitingly shot by Willis, is when Eve angrily smashes some red candles in a church when her husband makes the definitive break with her—it’s as if Allen himself were awkwardly smashing forward to another part of his career as the candles come clattering to the floor and Eve huffs and puffs her way out of the church. A distant tracking shot discreetly observes her breakdown into total incoherence, a loss of words that the hyper-verbal Allen sees as a portent of death, his biggest fear, alluded to constantly in his dialogue and made manifest in Eve's eventual suicide by drowning, which Allen seems to view as courageous. Left behind is the life-affirming, food-loving, sexual Pearl, who is seen gyrating to Allen's beloved Dixieland jazz, an oddly empty earth mother who destroys art (one of Eve's vases) in her instinctive pursuit of pleasure.

—Guest blogger Dan Callahan

This article is related to: Retrospectives