Film: Very Good
Label: Twilight Time
Released: February 14, 2017
Synopsis: A mother’s discharge from a mental health clinic sets off a new round of conflicts within an already bickering family with tragic consequences.
Special Features: Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and www.twilighttimemovies.com.
Billed as Woody Allen’s first formal drama, Interiors is sandwiched between his much-lauded and awarded classics Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979), and although this creative gamble was nominated for 5 Oscars, including Best Director and Best Writing, Interiors has aged into an overly mannered snapshot of a wounded matriarch and her bickering family.
It’s also Allen’s most overt homage to Ingmar Bergman’s female-centric dramas, with Gordon Willis’ camera lens often framing and holding on the faces of actresses as they react to internal conflicts, with the final shot forming a stark metaphor for sisterly cohesion as each daughter steps forward to settle into a neat 3-shot.
Spartan sets and spacious rooms illuminated by variations in natural light give each scene a European quality, as do the costumes by Joel Schumacher (his last before switching to full-time director), which evoke a stylish yet utilitarian design, and Mel Bourne’s Oscar-nominated production design emphasizes wood, wintry off-whites, pastel ceramics, and glassware instead of fancy crystal – aspects directly tied to the meticulous, petty, highly controlled nature of matriarch Eve (Geraldine Page), mother to 3 daughters, and recently separated from husband Arthur (E.G. Marshall).
There isn’t much to Allen’s plotting: after a recent discharge from a mental health clinic, Eve is determined to reinsert her will into her daughters’ lives, but ultimately cracks when Arthur decides to push for a formal divorce and marries less sophisticated Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), who tries hard to blend with the snotty kids, each of whom has enjoyed some measure of financial subsidy from their father. Arthur’s obligations to Eve, who supported him during his lean years as a newly minted lawyer, were paid off long ago, hence his need and hunger to move forward, knowing full well it can trigger another relapse and send Eve to oblivion.
Although the performances are uniformly strong – Page and Marshall are especially potent playing characters accustomed to restrained behavioural codes, and Stapleton underplays a woman twice married who knows she’s being judged by a trio of adult kids – this may be a case of one too many characters that weaken the potency of what should’ve been a careful, select few.
The weakest link is youngest daughter Flyn (Kristin Griffith, making her acting debut), a marginal actress who knows her only future lies in TV. Allen works in a silly collision between Flynn and the drunkard husband of elder daughter and ‘successful’ poet Renata (Diane Keaton), while the supportive Mike (Sam Waterston) tries to steer his girlfriend / middle daughter Joey (Chilly Scenes of Winter’s Mary Beth Hurt, in her film debut) away from a dead-end job as a publishing reader towards a banal ad agency position where job monotony might push her into accepting Mike’s hunger to be a father.
Renata’s husband Frederick (always underrated Richard Jordan) is a typical heavy drinking, self-loathing novelist who tosses obstacles in his path to thwart creative vitality and success, while Renata’s career would not exist without her father’s generous aide – hence her unquestionable support for Arthur’s marriage to Pearl, irrespective of what she thinks of the new wife.
Allen’s script was designed to plunge straight into the intensities of his characters’ various mid-life and mid-career crises, starting scenes with morbid, leadened expressions, gazes towards nothingness, and intense confessions, but he only succeeds once in a while; more often than not, the dialogue is clichéd, and without the humour that enlivened characters in his comedies, the characters within Interiors are largely monotone and monochrome.
And yet Interiors isn’t a failure, because like a formal play, the actors focus on subtleties and nuances to convey undercurrents of rage. Eve’s first scene has her barging into Joey and Mike’s apartment, more or less demanding the floors be redone because original choices in décor were ill-chosen (by her). A lamp is banished to a bedroom because it’s too gauche, and a vase swap is encouraged even though its cost goes far beyond Mike’s means. Before Eve even steps into camera view, Mike’s rage is expressed in the abrupt manner he plonks a bottle of wine on the dining table and uses it to shove paperwork to the side – a quarter step away from slamming the bottle hard and shoving the papers towards the floor in a more overt display that reads ‘Fuck off, and leave us alone.’
That control – from the actors and Allen – saves the film from being a pretentious homage to Bergman’s archetypes and bleak landscapes, but it is hard to feel sympathy for anyone in this cinematic rendition of a mannered stage play. The finale is tragic, but it’s also overwrought, as Eve does a Norman Maine and drowns herself in the cantankerous waves outside of the family’s beachfront estate.
Pearl’s mouth-to-mouth CPR saves Joey’s life, but we soon realize Joey didn’t want to be rescued because she’s tired of competing with perfect Renata and never receiving the same respect from Eve; the fact her sister carries an elegant first name insinuates Joey was an unexpected occurrence. Flyn escaped the family madness by accepting globe-trotting work, but she seems less astute than her sisters of her parents’ disintegrating union; she seems to find her rare visits home rewarding rather than miserable, forced family assemblies, as experienced by bickering Renata and Joey.
END OF SPOILERS
Interiors may be another of Allen’s films that mandate repeat viewings to confirm whether it’s a contrived, overwrought Americanized rendition of a chilly Swedish drama, or a nuanced, underplayed series of vignettes that loosely chronicle a family’s inevitable crash. The family’s formalism is creepy and unsettling to Pearl, and in her first dinner with the kids, she realizes her natural expressiveness and open emotions are alien to a family that’s spent decades being irritatingly polite; for Renata and Joey’s marriages, both funnel their rage towards their respective spouses using passive-aggressive maneuvers.
With two period jazz songs comprising the film’s only music score, this is a sonically threadbare drama, although Allen does play with aural dynamics in some scenes. The quietness within a cathedral meeting between estranged Eve and Arthur is brutally ruined by a crashing of votive candles and a stomping towards the exit; and the wedding’s jazz music is just a hair too loud, placing the audience in the same frustrating position of Joey as she’s slowly overwhelmed by the racket of an unwanted wedding.
Less successful are the dialogue levels which are sometimes near-whispers; Allen may have wanted to grab as much natural location sound to keep the performances raw and real, but there are moments when words are barely audible, although perhaps Allen was inferring that there are some thoughts which are too private to share, even with audiences. (On the other hand, Allen’s muted, if not barely audible beach sounds from a bedroom in the family’s seaside estate adds to the family’s sterile existence, in which colours, objects, sounds, and emotions have assigned places from where they mustn’t digress.)
Allen also positions audiences as intrusive voyeurs, filming conversations behind the spokes of banisters, tracking Joey and Renata on the beach with warped fencing flickering across the screen. Close-ups and medium shots in the cathedral scene have pews, candles, and columns which prevent us from sharing select moments which have been deemed by Allen to be too private, necessitating a respectful distance between audiences and characters.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray sports a crisp transfer that preserves the delicately illuminated scenes which were often filmed with fast / high grain film stock – a quality that Allen perhaps chose to give the film gritty realism. The bonus trailer emphasizes the film’s Oscar-worthiness in being Allen’s first drama, intercutting pull quotes with brief scenes, but also promising the film will have a little humour when there’s really none. (Minor trivia note: the trailer’s male narrator is Norman Rose, a magnificent voice actor who also appeared as a lawyer with Allen in what was billed as the auteur’s first dramatic role in Martin Ritt’s The Front.)
Julie Kirgo expresses her full support for the film in her lively essay, which urges newcomers and Allen fans to give ‘the film that no one saw’ another chance – which it deserves; and there’s an interesting take on Pearl’s ethnicity, arguing her appearance in that dinner scene signifies a discrete clash of cultures without assigning specific identities: Pearl’s warm, gregarious, and affectionate nature versus everyone’s reserved, pent-up demeanor, and Eve’s WASPy bloodline suffering exclusively from self-inflicted dry-rot.
Interiors was Allen’s carte blanche production for UA after the massive success of Annie Hall, and yet like idol Bergman, who similarly indulged in a pet project – The Serpent’s Egg (1977) – when producer Dino De Laurentiis snagged the Oscar-winning auteur for a carte blanche prestige piece, the end results were underwhelming, overwrought, and sent both filmmakers back to the works that made them icons in their realms: Allen was back on top with Manhattan, and Bergman similarly struck gold with Autumn Sonata (1978).
Woody Allen films released by Twilight Time include Love and Death (1975), Interiors (1978), Stardust Memories (1980), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1983), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days (1987), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989), and the Allen starring in the Red Menace satire The Front (1976).
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan
Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review