Thursday, January 16, 2014

Interiors (1978)

          After writing and directing an extraordinary run of comedy films, from 1969’s Take the Money and Run to 1977’s Annie Hall, Woody Allen needed a change, so he dove headlong into drama with Interiors, a grim chamber piece that recalls the work of Allen’s cinematic hero, Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman. Like Bergman’s myriad stories about the mysteries of the human soul, Interiors presents sophisticated but troubled individuals who possess the uncanny ability to articulate even the most miniscule nuances of emotion. Yet while Bergman’s singular movies exist on some elevated metaphorical plane that justifies the contrivance of hyper-verbal characters, Allen’s endeavor represents a queasy hybrid of realism and symbolism. That said, it’s helpful to view Interiors as a transitional moment, because while making his very next movie, 1979’s Manhattan, Allen found a more comfortable idiom by merging comedy with drama. Therefore, it’s as if Allen needed to flush jokes out of his system before he could evolve into a mature artist.
          This long preamble is a kind way of saying that Interiors would seem laughably dour and pretentious had it been made by anyone but a legitimate filmmaker in the midst of an important metamorphosis. In fact, notwithstanding rapturous cinematography by Gordon Willis and strong performances by an eclectic cast, Interiors sometimes approaches self-parody.
          Set primarily at a beach house in the Hamptons, the story borrows from the Eugene O’Neill template of a family plagued by epic dysfunction. Eve (Geraldine Page), an interior designer in late middle age, has been in crisis ever since her husband, Arthur (E.G. Marshall), left her. Over the course of several months, Eve attempts suicide, Arthur remarries, and their daughters wrestle with various neuroses. Nearly every scene in the picture features a depressing visual metaphor, whether it’s an off-white wall decorated by Eve as an expression of her barren emotional life, or an ominous shadow indicative of the ennui suffocating the characters.
          While undeniably artistic, intelligent, and ruminative, Allen’s unrelenting screenplay feels contrived, especially when characters unleash reams of overwritten dialogue. For instance, put-upon daughter Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) delivers a speech that summarizes the movie’s themes far too perfectly: “All the beautifully furnished rooms, carefully designed interiors—everything’s so controlled. There wasn’t any room for any real feelings.” And the scripting gets worse. Later in the same scene, Joey says, “There’s been perverseness and willfulness of attitude to many of the things you’ve done.” Allen has often evinced a proclivity for lines that are so “written” they sound unnatural emanating from actors, but his dramaturgical instinct has rarely failed him as completely as it does throughout Interiors.
          That said, the film is hardly without virtues. Aesthetically, Interiors is a triumph, with the combination of long takes and purposeful silence (there is no score) creating just the right kind of claustrophobia. Furthermore, the acting is impassioned, with performers struggling to make Allen’s stilted worlds sound organic—and occasionally succeeding. Page and costar Maureen Stapleton (who plays Arthur’s second wife) both received Oscar nominations, while Hurt, Marshall, Richard Jordan, and Diane Keaton all do strong work. Each character in the film, however, is essentially an elevated version of a cliché: the alcoholic novelist, the happy idiot, the soulful depressive, the vapid actress, and so on. Accordingly, Interiors remains most interesting as an artistic steppingstone, because it’s far too artificial, chilly, and pretentious to fully succeed as a movie.

Interiors: FUNKY


Tommy Ross said...

Definitely one of the black sheeps of the Allen canon, agree with you wholeheartedly, most people rate it a "groovy" or "right on" but I just say "funky." I would watch it again but don't own it in my collection.

angelman66 said...

Just saw this again after many years--Geraldine Page and Maureen Stapleton are particularly outstanding in this film...Woody is rarely credited for writing such great women's roles!

Unknown said...