Monday, 14 August 2017

Interiors (1978)

Coming as it does between Annie Hall and Manhattan, Interiors is Woody Allen at the height of his creative powers. It is perhaps unsurprising therefore that Interiors is a film about creativity. What is surprising is that it is a straight drama - something his audience simply wasn't ready for at the time.

Borrowing from his beloved Bergman and Chekhov (Three Sisters springs to mind) Interiors is a glacial, distinctly European-style exploration of familial angst that is ignited when the marriage of the parents of the three women Arthur (EG Marshall) and Eve (Geraldine Page) breaks down. The theme of creativity is especially apparent in the careers and frustrations of the sisters.

Diane Keaton's Renata is an established and acclaimed poet whose undiagnosed anxieties surrounding mortality (she seems to be presenting with panic attacks throughout the film and talks of an understanding and fear of death) have impacted on her writing process leaving her, in her own words, impotent. The only daughter to provide her parents with a grandchild, Renata has literally created, but doesn't have the emotional attachment to raise or develop her offspring. 

Equally creatively successful is Flyn (Kristen Griffith), an actress whose beauty ensures she is seldom out of work. However, Flyn is practical enough to know that her career is not a secure one and that the looks that keep her in such demand will not last forever. Equally she is concerned by the notion that her art lacks the substance that Renata's possesses and, when Renata's partner Frederick (Richard Jordan), a frustrated and unappreciated writer who feels creatively inferior to Renata and therefore unworthy of her love, attempts to physically seduce her sister, his stinging criticism that 'You only exist when you are being looked at' really hits home with Flyn. 

Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) is ostensibly the film's lead, a sibling whom Renata describes as possessing 'all the anguish and anxiety of a creative soul with none of the talent'. An artist without talent, or at least a field to work within (Renata's damning criticism comes from Joey's unsuccessful attempts at photography), Joey is troubled by her inability to effectively express what is inside her and, of all the siblings, she seems to exist specifically in her mother's shadow. She feels like she is the one who bears the brunt of Eve's neuroses and is afraid of turning into her at the same time. She treats her lover Mike (an impossibly young Sam Waterston) poorly and confesses to not understanding why he doesn't just leave her, given the grief she gives him. When she discovers that she is pregnant, her immediate reaction is to abort, again perhaps because she is fearful of becoming Eve. 

The real creative force in Interiors however is Eve, and it is a distinctly negative creative force that she possesses and uses that permeates across the family. A meticulous, mentally fragile interior designer, the matriarch treats her immediate family like objects to be appreciated and controlled, co-ordinated to her tastes accurately and effectively in the family home and her existence. She even designs Joey and Mike's home to her own taste, once again proving that Joey is submitting to her mother at all times. The family home, which she has fashioned in complimentary subdued tones of greys and creams feels not unlike a doll's house and especially so in the way Allen frames the flashback sequences of the sisters' childhood. The house overlooks the sea, whose untameable nature serves as a potent metaphor both in contrast to Eve's controlled tastes and in how Allen purposefully shoots Renata, Joey and Flyn looking out of the windows upon the sea - effectively trapped in their own interiors.  Played effectively by Geraldine Page, Eve is a character whose fragility initially evokes feelings of sympathy in the audience and indeed, for all her negative influence on those closest to her, the family remain protective and concerned for her no matter what. It is a peculiar but all too believable passive aggressive relationship in which Eve's manipulative actions are repeatedly excused. Only the political Mike - mindful of history repeating itself perhaps - has the outspoken ability to protest and acknowledge her behaviour, revolts against the stifling hold that masquerades as Eve's artistic vision by moving the vase she specifically selected for his and Joey's bedroom into the living room.  For Allen, writing from a women's POV for the first time, it is important to view Eve as the first in what becomes a recurring character type in his films; the dominant mother. At a time when British comedy was preoccupied with mother-in-law jokes, Allen was subverting the trend, creating the Eve character from his experience of just such a relationship with his first wife Louise Lasser's mother. 

Eve's greatest creation is her husband, Arthur (we know she views her husband as coldly as such because it is referenced how she personally footed the bill to put him through law school) and so when he announces his desire for a trial separation and ultimately requests a divorce because he has met someone else, his actions are viewed as the ultimate betrayal which causes a relapse of Eve's suicidal depression (though it could be argued Eve's initial suicide attempt is a manipulative action intended to bring him back to the marriage). Arthur's 'other woman' is Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), an unmistakeably transformative character dismissed as a 'vulgarian' by Joey (speaking her mother's thoughts?) because she does not comprehend the arts as they do, has simple tastes, and dances wildly and alone at her own wedding reception, accidentally smashing one of her mother's vases as a result. Arthur appreciates Pearl because she makes him feel both alive and relaxed, things he could never be with Eve. Pearl's lively, ebullient character is best depicted by her warmer colours; she is a redhead, who wears red dresses and warming red furs. She brings new colour into the austere lives of our protagonists and is the one to attempt to breathe life into Eve following that stunningly shot climax in a manner not too dissimilar to the new life she has breathed into Arthur. 

This is Allen at his most visually creative and there are many stunningly framed shots and setpieces here to recommend Interiors. I especially love his use of tracking shots here, as well as his use of sound; he offsets his traditional naturalistic sound design with harsh, brutal explosions of noise - the crashing waves in the almost soundless climax, the sweeping of candles and the vase to the floor, the harsh sound of the tape as it seals the windows during Eve's attempt to gas herself - that really make you sit up.

If this were any other filmmaker, Interiors would be hailed as a landmark film in the new age of Hollywood of the 1970s. However, because it is Woody Allen, it came with far too many expectations. His first straight drama, it confounded audiences and critics alike and, even today, you'll see online people expressing how they were 'looking for the jokes' in a way which they simply do not do with his later dramas such as Crimes and Misdemeanours or Match Point. That said, there are some funny moments in Interiors, most notably from Stapleton's culture clash with her new family around the dinner table. That she genuinely considers her son to be running an art gallery in the lobby of a Vegas hotel and that she fails to understand the emotional depth in a play they're discussing raises a chuckle, but it also points perhaps an accusing finger to our own bourgeois tastes and the elitist belief that one type of art is superior to another, but that there is such a thing as a correct and incorrect personal relationship with art itself.

I'd waited a long time to see Interiors, it's an Allen film that never gets shown on TV, and now I'm kicking myself that I didn't just buy the DVD sooner than this week. Then again, if I had bought and seen it years ago when I first wanted to, perhaps - like the audiences of the day - I wouldn't have appreciated it as much as I do now? I'm just glad I've finally seen it, and I feel sure that it will only grow in my already high esteem on repeated viewing.


  1. I still haven't watched Interiors but I must - Annie Hall and Manhattan two of my all time favourite films so can't believe this omission. As you say probably because it never pops up on telly - Will seek it out. Thanks for this.

    1. You're in exactly the same position I was in until the weekend then. I'd definitely recommend seeking it out (and a DVD is quite cheap on Amazon, or it's part of the two for a tenner deal at HMV) because you'll kick yourself if you leave it any longer. It's of course radically different from Annie Hall and Manhattan, but quality wise it's right up there. Woody was really on fire at this period; Annie, Interiors, Manhattan and Stardust Memories...what a streak! Manhattan is my favourite of his films.