#25 — Interiors (Woody Allen, 1978)
Interiors was Woody Allen’s eighth film as a director. That’s both an impressive amount of features to have churned out in his first twelve years as a filmmaker (Paul Thomas Anderson’s sixth in sixteen years is set to be released this fall), a testimony to his get-up-and-go-to-work approach to his profession, and also a bizarrely meager number of titles to think about in relation to Allen. Since his prolific nature hasn’t waned a bit in the nearly thirty-five years since Interiors was released, it’s almost confounding to think of contextualizing Allen’s oeuvre within a batch of films that numbers in the single digits. Still, it’s enlightening to think about what a stark surprise Interiors was when it arrived. Allen had a creative breakthrough just one year earlier with the Best Picture winning Annie Hall, which softened the inspired lunacy of his preceding features and elevated the material with crafty, ingenious filmmaking that caressed and bent the possibilities of the form. As a follow-up to that blissful, fiercely intelligent romantic comedy, Allen made a film entirely unlike anything he’d done before. Two films earlier, in 1975’s Love and Death, he was spoofing Ingmar Bergman; now he was emulating the Swedish master, and doing it with astonishing skill.
The film follows the painful dissolution of a family. Arthur (E.G. Marshall) decides to leave his wife of many years, Eve (Geraldine Page), in large part because he’s been worn out by her demanding nature. This leaves their three grown daughters, Renata (Diane Keaton), Flyn (Kristin Griffith) and Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), struggling with their own feelings towards each of the parents and the seismically shifting dynamics of the family unit. Whatever sense of personal stability they took from the erudite certainly of their domestic origins is shattered, and all the petty differences that have been concealed beneath a carefully constructed front of civility begin to come to the fore. There are artistic inclinations among all the daughters, but notably different levels of skill and success, which contributes to the discord. In Allen’s reckoning, family–hell, humanity–is an engine running at its breaking point, with a whole range of stresses always threatening to tear the entirety apart.
There’s a mesmerizing iciness built into Allen’s screenplay and he meets that with precisely constructed images of elegant beauty, not of the sort reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s imploding fireworks of nature or Martin Scorsese’s dynamic majesty, but more akin to the polished, museum-like stillness of Mike Nichols. Allen is aided immeasurably in this cause by cinematographer Gordon Willis, who possessed an unmatched talent for bringing an emotive crispness to the simplest shots. At times, the film seems to be gently veiled in the agony it generates, its moody lighting swelling and softening like a laboring heart. Willingly discarding the wit that had been his most vaunted weapon, Allen instead narrows in on the ways that language is used to pierce others, particular, it seems, those whom the speaker holds dearest.
The strife that has been at an idle fully roars to life when Arthur introduces the new woman he plans to marry, the fairly plainspoken Pearl, played with great care and sympathy by Maureen Stapleton. Her very being represents more than moving on. She is a full-scale refutation of everything Arthur experienced with Eve and their daughters. Both in his quietly pummeling script and in the intimacy of his direction, Allen pushes the film to almost unbearable levels of feeling, the sort that can shear away a soul. As with Bergman’s efforts, much depends on the ability of the actors to register the deepest concerns and conflicts of their characters, and Allen’s cast give him superlative efforts all around. Page is especially vital in her work here, showing with unbearable honesty what happens when a strong woman is reduced to rubble.
Allen periodically returned to films that could be characterized as straight dramas many times after Interiors, but none of them, even those that are arguably better, have quite the same forthrightness and bravery. Surely Allen was uncertain as to whether or not he could pull off a film that was such a drastic departure from everything he’d done before. If so, there’s no reticence to it, and the main thing that registers is a certainty of purpose. Interiors is excellent, even without giving it extra credit for the artistic growth it measured. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it was Allen’s eighth feature or his thirty-eighth (that would be Vicky Christina Barcelona, by the way, and it’s also exceptional). What matters is what exists between the opening and closing credits, and every bit of it speaks to Allen’s sharp artistry.