First screened and reviewed in May 1999 / Most recently screened in July 2016
Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Mary Beth Hurt, Diane Keaton, Geraldine Page, E.G. Marshall, Sam Waterston, Kristin Griffith, Maureen Stapleton, Richard Jordan. Screenplay: Woody Allen.

Twitter Capsule: Solemnity and blatant Bergmania trip it up sometimes, but at their best, images and performances are daring and moving.

VOR:   Tough call, since it so baldly imitates Bergman but takes that imitation so far. Not just unusually solemn for Allen, but cold and severe for a U.S. drama. Clichéd, but breath-catching.

Photo © 1978 United Artists/Rollins-Joffe Productions
Woody Allen's first attempt at straight-faced chamber drama is not so interesting or accomplished as his later effort in this vein, 1988's Another Woman. Nonetheless, Interiors, which received a bevy of award nominations but very little popular enthusiasm when it was released, is a strong and attention-worthy piece of work. Importing wholesale characters, scenarios, and visual concepts from two of his most consistent inspirations, Ingmar Bergman and Anton Chekhov, Allen tells the story of a troubled family, starting with the parents played by Geraldine Page and E.G. Marshall. Page's Eve is an interior decorator with a history of mental breakdowns. Marshall's Arthur all but guarantees another of these episodes when he announces dispassionately over lunch that he wishes to instigate a trial separation.

While Eve struggles to understand and accept what her husband tells her, her two older daughters sit at the table stunned. Renata (Diane Keaton), a successful poet, eventually decides that her mother needs as much encouragement as possible, so she bolsters Eve's seemingly deluded optimism that Marshall will seek a reconciliation. Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), a pragmatist, faults Renata for giving false hope but is rebuked by her mother for not believing in the prospect of her happiness. Joey feels that her valid opinions are not taken seriously because she has not been as professionally successful as Renata; Keaton's character in turn feels that Joey's opinion is of more value to their father than is her own. Both women have husbands, played by Sam Waterston and Richard Jordan, who grasp their wives' perspectives but have their own reasons for wanting to remain as far outside the situation as possible. Occasionally swanning into this sea of tensions is Renata and Joey's youngest sister Flyn (Kristin Griffiths). The baby sister is a beautiful TV-movie actress who seems to have attained a state of contentment by acknowledging and embracing her mid-level talent for what it is. But her exterior, like most of the other characters', masks a different interior truth.

Allen situates these interactions within tonal and thematic terrains familiar from many of his own best pictures, comedic or dramatic: the illusion of happiness; the implacable passage of time, even through otherwise privileged lives; the morality and promised immortality of art; the struggle of maintaining family relationships; the impulse to assess oneself by hopeless or inappropriate standards, even if you acknowledge them as hopeless or feel them to be imposed unfairly by some outside party. Still, these threads of continuity are rendered more overtly and much more solemnly in Interiors than in, say, Annie Hall, Allen's popular and critical juggernaut of the preceding year. It's fair to say that Interiors probably looks more of a piece with the writer-director's later output now than it reasonably could have at the time, even if his debts to Bergman and to the Russian novelists in romps like Love and Death were hardly subtle.

Considered for itself, Interiors is a quiet, deliberate movie that valiantly holds to its melancholic timbre, occasionally tilting into full-on despair. Allen must have divined that most of his audience would balk at following him down such a path, and that American movies have rarely indulged so many morose personalities even when a screenplay invites them. If there is clear exaggeration in Allen's funereal construction of mood and in his joyless directing of Hurt in particular, there is also a tonal courage at work. He swims knowingly against the grain of expectation, perhaps too much so, but he doesn't apologize. The shots are long and quiet enough to be Chantal Akerman's, even though Allen's verbal dexterity remains evident in the speeches; just listen to how Page's and Keaton's characters in particular try to keep the world at a safe, formal distance by using unnecessarily large words to express simple thoughts or unfiltered feelings.

I admired this film on first pass, then, and continue to admire it even after discovering the cold shoulder it received from ticket-buyers and taste-makers in 1978, save those AMPAS voters who bequeathed it five major Oscar nominations (including a surprise bid for Allen in Best Director over his hero, Bergman, for Autumn Sonata, another drama of bourgeois suffocation, emotional claustrophobia, and daughterly resentment). Despite such enthusiasm, though, I cannot deny that Interiors is almost too controlled, too deliberate, less of a unified vision than an occasionally repetitive and, yes, overstated exercise in gloom. Geraldine Page's tightly-coiled hairstyle, the gray/yellow/brown color palette, the rarely-broken silences, and the visual motif of fences and other boundaries all serve the same dramatic purposes, if not an embarrassingly blunt symbolism. Two or three of these elements would have persuasively indicated the guarded personalities of the characters and their sense of foreclosed desires, without making the script itself seem dehydrated of nuance or crudely prescriptive of theme. Maureen Stapleton arrives midway through the film to contribute a bold yet believable, cannily "dumb" performance as Marshall's new flame, Pearl. The effect within the repressive mood and mise-en-scène of Interiors is almost Fauvist, and very exciting for that reason and others. Still, her vibrant red costuming and her swooping movements around Gordon Willis's frames and Mel Bourne's so obviously contrast the rest of the movie's schemes that we perceive her too obviously as a Vital Life Force, blooming amidst all the anomie.

Allen might have deepened his film by reaching for more than one emotional effect at a time, as the redoubtable Page does in her unflattering but highly revisitable performance as the embittered and terrified wife. Page's Eve lies to herself so constantly and perversely that it amounts to a form of truth-telling. She knows she is lying, she signals behind her hard and slatted gaze that you know she is lying, and yet she faults people both for underestimating her own grasp of her circumstances and for failing to feed that bottomless appetite for impossible reassurance, which she parades all over the place without admitting that she does it. I have now seen Page in Interiors and in the original Sweet Bird of Youth, and the brazenly mannered, superficially off-putting, but unexpectedly moving portrayals she furnishes to both films make me think F. Murray Abraham may have been on to something when he called her on Oscar night America's greatest actress.

Allen is the unique filmmaker who rarely makes a total misstep like Shadows and Fog but who often appears to work within self-imposed boundaries of overstatement, pale imitation, or patently uneven interest in his different characters. He is less apt to err by flopping outright than by repeating himself, either with wholly gratuitous projects (like Mighty Aphrodite and Celebrity) or with films that belabor their individual conceits. His drawbacks as a filmmaker often parade themselves right down the middle of a movie that in other respects is working very well, as though he's flagellating himself for his inadequacies, right along with his characters. The popular images of Allen—derived from his own writing and screen appearances, but also from documentaries like 1997's Wild Man Blues and from ex-companion Mia Farrow's exquisitely lucid memoir What Falls Away—all agree that Allen feels an existential despair and a burden of self-conscious fraudulence as strong as those expressed in his serious movies, and even, if you're watchful, in his funny ones.

It is a telling attribute of his long, terrific career that it becomes harder and harder over time even to distinguish "the funny ones" from "the serious ones." Interiors, proficient but lacking in nuance, impressively committed to its own miserable milieu but at some cost to inflection or insight, is not to all tastes even among Allen loyalists (Soon-yi Previn herself confides in Wild Man Blues that she dislikes it), but it's a more interesting project for him to have tackled than a throwaway like Small Time Crooks or a less forceful bout of brooding like September. You wish the whole thing were as memorable as Page's implosive tension or Stapleton's reckless vitalism or the pale-on-pale color schemes in some of the shots that you wouldn't otherwise associate with a chiaroscurist like Gordon Willis. Later movies absorbed and executed the impulses behind Interiors with more variation and finesse, but its wormwood reputation in the popular zeitgeist feels unfair. Like Eve, the film is morbid and unhappy, in ways that are both earnest and pathetically attention-seeking. Imperfect? Sure. Insubstantial? Not at all. B

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Director: Woody Allen
Best Actress: Geraldine Page
Best Supporting Actress: Maureen Stapleton
Best Original Screenplay: Woody Allen
Best Art Direction: Mel Bourne

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Director: Woody Allen
Best Actress (Drama): Geraldine Page
Best Supporting Actress: Maureen Stapleton
Best Screenplay: Woody Allen

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Supporting Actress (Stapleton)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Supporting Actress (Stapleton; tie)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Supporting Actress (Page)

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