“I feel the need to express something, but I don’t know what it is I want to express.”
After veering into semi-dramatic territory for the first time with the Oscar-winning Annie Hall, Woody Allen decided it was time to make a full-blown drama. His next film was Interiors, a serious-minded work that drew heavily on his admiration for the quietly intense chamber dramas of Ingmar Bergman. To say that it was a startling shift in tone was an understatement: Annie Hall may have had more emotional depth than Allen’s earlier works, but it was still clearly written in his distinctively witty, playful voice. Much to the surprise of the director’s fans, Interiors actually felt much closer to Bergman than to anything else Allen had made.
At the time, the notion of Woody Allen trying to make a movie containing no jokes must have sounded a bit like Liberace trying to perform a concert with only one hand. Indeed, critics seemed puzzled by how suddenly Allen’s unmistakable personality had disappeared. “It’s almost as if Mr. Allen had set out to make someone else’s movie, say a film in the manner of Mr. Bergman, without having any grasp of the material, or first-hand, gut feelings about the characters,” Vincent Canby wrote. “They seem like other people’s characters, known only through other people’s art.”
The criticism isn’t entirely invalid. There are moments when the movie feels an awful lot like a clinical feature-length experiment: how long can this movie keep a straight face? Even so, the movie has an unexpected power, particularly once you’ve spent some time getting to know the characters and immersing yourself in their assorted internal torments. While the movie doesn’t quite reach the Bergmanesque heights Allen is aiming for, it’s the sort of valiant try few filmmakers are bold enough to even attempt.
The story – to the degree that there is one – centers on a fractured family that is in the process of creating more fractures. It all begins when Arthur (E.G. Marshall, 12 Angry Men) decides that – after decades of marriage to Eve (Geraldine Page, The Trip to Bountiful) – he wants to live alone for a while. The new comes as a surprise to Arthur’s daughters Renata (Diane Keaton, Annie Hall), Joey (Mary Beth Hurt, The Age of Innocence) and Flyn (Kristen Griffith, King of the Hill), but Eve is devastated: she can’t bear the notion of living alone, and Arthur’s continual promises that this might only be temporary are precious little comfort.
As the months pass, we watch as the assorted members of the family attempt to find their bearings and figure out where they want to go. Joey seems to change jobs every few weeks (a process that exhausts her patient husband Mike, played by Sam Waterston), perpetually discontented with her current situation and plagued by the feeling that she ought to be doing something else (what that is, exactly, she doesn’t know). Renata is an established writer, but is insecure about her work and struggles to communicate effectively with her pompous husband Frederick (Richard Jordan, Gettysburg). Flyn is a successful actress, but frets about the fact that she isn’t taken seriously and that her youth has an expiration date. Meanwhile, Eve grows increasingly distraught while watching Arthur drift into a new relationship and newfound contentment.
In some ways, all of these characters are standard “Woody Allen characters” – upper-class artists fretting over relationships and existence – but Allen strips them of the comic edges that define so many of his creations. Indeed, Allen doesn’t permit any jokes at all to enter the proceedings: this is a Serious Movie, and it wants the audience to know that. It comes across as a bit of affectation (lots of incredibly grim movies contain a handful of funny bits), but it also achieves something interesting: without any comedy to take the edge off, the sense of existential despair that can be felt in so many Allen films feels considerably more overwhelming.
Page’s Oscar-nominated performance is a remarkable piece of work. She gives us a detailed portrait of a woman who simply isn’t emotionally equipped to handle Arthur’s departure, and the fact that Arthur seems oblivious to this (or at least willfully ignorant of it) only makes it worse. Keaton, Griffith and Hurt do a nice job of finding different ways to play different forms of discontentment and uncertainty: Keaton furrows her brow in concern, Griffith sighs and smiles, Hurt lashes out. They feel like real sisters, with their sharp differences underlined by inescapable common threads.
Interiors (Blu-ray) offers a decent 1080p/1.85:1 transfer. Gordon Willis’ moody cinematography is typically strong, and the folks at Twilight Time do a respectable job of preserving the film’s muted look. Detail is fairly solid throughout, and there’s a warm layer of natural grain present. Black levels could be a little better, but it’s nothing worth complaining about. The DTS HD 1.0 Master Audio track is exceptionally quiet (there’s no music at all save for stray bits of source material, and dialogue tends to be on the quieter side), but it’s sharp and clean. Supplements are limited to a trailer (Twilight Time’s usual isolated score track would be a pointless inclusion in this particular case) and a booklet featuring an essay on the film.
Interiors isn’t the best of Allen’s more serious-minded films, but it’s a compelling change-of-pace with some strong moments and performances. Worth a look.