In Defense of “Interiors”

I’ve put off seeing Woody Allen’s Interiors for years, largely because I had the misfortune of sitting through September and Shadows and Fog almost immediately after their respective release dates. My hesitation has always echoed the line leveled by the film’s critics: that Woody Allen’s dramas are essentially Bergman-lite, that they deal with WASPish characters, and that they are about as icy as a weekend spent in a meat locker.

So it was a bit of a surprise to see that my notions were dispelled when finally seeing the film. Interiors is actually more inspired by Chekhov than Bergman and is more realist than the film’s detractors give it credit for. Somehow, Allen succeeded in keeping the whiny quotient of his characters’ neuroses to a minimum. There is a tattered sadness to nearly every character, with the seams showing through in small moments (one character’s unexpected resort to cocaine use, the meticulous way that Geraldine Page gaff-tapes the windows before her suicide attempt, and the savagery beneath failed novelist Richard Jordan’s frustrations). Allen was wise enough to put his characters’ troubles into perspective by profiling the family, giving the audience an idea about where his characters received their misconceived sense of entitlement, whether it’s through E.G. Marshall’s desperate hookup with Maureen Stapleton (who sizzles in a red dress) and a harrowing revelation at a dinner table that is as tactless as it is selfish. In fact, if you look carefully at the nuanced behavior, the film transcends its classist overtones. It might even be viewed as a devastating assault on affluence, elitism, and the myth of self-entitlement.

There are, predictably enough, three sisters. The oldest played by Diane Keaton is a poet of some note. She’s married to Jordan. And during one sequence before a party, we get a real sense of the shared defeatist attitude they have in common. There’s Flyn (Kristin Griffith), an actress near the end of a career riding on good looks, reduced to playing in dreadful movies filmed in the Rocky Mountains rather than Acapulco. Finally, there’s Joey (Mary Beth Hurt), who floats from one job to another and hasn’t figured out a game plan for what she wants. I particularly liked how Allen used Joey’s look to play with Hurt’s strengths at playing such a bitter character. Hurt’s small face hides behind enormous glasses, with perfectly curved hair detracting from precious physiognomic real estate space. It spells out Joey’s inability to reveal anything about herself — not even to her Marxist filmmaking boyfriend (Sam Waterson, who is remarkably impassive about his work). There’s one shot where Hurt is drinking a glass of wine and the glass nearly drowns out her features. It’s a telling statement on where Joey’s heading in life, particularly since she’s pregnant and the film doesn’t reveal whether she aborts her child or not.

All of these life struggles could have easily been transposed to another income bracket. But the cruel thing about Interiors is that money will always bail these characters out, forcing them to fall into the same cycles of unhappiness again and again. There will be plenty of money for therapy, for lean times when the poetry isn’t paying, and for Joey to waste time as she finds yet another job she’s not satisfied with. One might view Interiors as a stern rebuke for a life both unappreciated and without any sense of self-sufficiency. Yet it’s a tribute to Allen’s gifts as a filmmaker that these themes are so masterfully kept underneath the action.

Gordon Willis’ photography is coordinated to profile the environment over the characters. Two sisters walk along the beach in a tracking shot, but their actions are obstructed by a fence which meshes out their conversation. The apartments and houses we see are ironically palatial. They look so clean and so constantly refurnished that it’s a wonder how anyone can live in them, much less feel comfortable in them. It’s a credit to Mel Bourne’s production design prowess that these airy confines feel so sterile. These are Pottery Barn nightmares well before Pottery Barn. That matriarch Geraldine Page is an interior designer is almost a sick joke for how willfully hindered these characters are.

Watching Interiors reminded me of what a great filmmaker Woody Allen once was. It took considerable chutzpah for Allen to followup his greatest commercial success, Annie Hall, with a film that dared to penetrate the duplicities of passivity and excess. Interiors may very well be one of his most underrated films, much as those who follow Bob Rafelson often overlook The King of Marvin Gardens when considering his ouevre.

One Comment

  1. The great thing about INTERIORS to me is that there are so many places where you can see opportunities for Allen to take the funny road–like the suicidal gaff-taping–and he resolutely refuses to do it.

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