Over the years, Woody Allen has made it clear that he wants to do more with movies than make people laugh. "When you do comedy," the American director said a decade ago, “you’re not sitting at the grown-ups’ table, you’re sitting at the children’s table.” But Allen’s first grownup movie, 1978’s archly austere Interiors, left most of his fans and critics wishing that he would go back to fun and games. Last year, Allen tried a second time with September, a sour, brittle drama shot entirely in one house. He was so intent on making it work that, after completing the filming, he reshot the whole movie. But the result was even less appealing than Interiors. A year later, without pausing to make another comedy, Allen has taken a third swing at hardball drama with Another Woman—and this time he connects. Like his previous efforts, Another Woman is a psychological drama in the style of Allen’s idol, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. But instead of suffocating in its own angst, the film breathes with emotional vitality.
The story centres on Marion (Gena Rowlands), a philosophy professor who takes a sabbatical to write a book and discovers some unsettling truths about herself. She rents an office to work on the project, but the first time she sits down at her desk, she overhears the anguished confessions of a woman talking to a psychiatrist in the office next door. Through a vent in the wall, Marion can hear every word— a literal venting of emotions. Marion baffles the sound with cushions in order to work, but she becomes intrigued by a patient, a pregnant woman named Hope (Mia Farrow). Hope’s capacity for emotional candor throws Marion’s controlled rationality into sharp relief. Hope confesses that she has been wracked by “deceptions so real and so much a part of me that I didn’t know who I was.”
The self-possessed Marion, however, is still wedded to her deceptions. She has a successful career and is married to a cardiologist (Ian Holm). But a series of jarring revelations gradually open some chinks in her psychological armor. At a party, a couple’s drunken confession about making love on the living room floor makes her realize how little passion is left in her own marriage. Confirming her worst fears, her husband says, “I don’t think I see you as the hardwood-floor type.” Later, memories of their courtship take on a sordid tarnish after his ex-wife bursts into another party and humiliates him by asking, “What does Emily Post say about adultery with a philosophy professor in a Holiday Inn while his wife is in the hospital having her ovaries removed?”
Another Woman is full of wonderfully unnatural moments in which people shatter Smalltalk etiquette by actually saying what they think of each other. But within that dramatic conceit, the characters remain compellingly real. As Marion, Rowlands is brilliant, letting nuances of repressed feeling glint through a masklike face. She is best known for appearing in films directed by her husband, John Cassavetes—notably A Woman Under the Influence. Working with Allen, she gives a daringly plainspoken performance, which includes a narrative voice-over that is, by intention, prosaic: Marion peels back the layers of her life as if it does not quite belong to her.
The movie works as a sort of existential mystery, with Marion investigating her hidden identity. Is she who she thinks she is, or who others say she is? An old lover, portrayed with great relish by Gene Hackman, reminds her that she was once capable of passion. Meanwhile, Allen uses Bergman’s favorite narrative devices—flashbacks and an extended dream sequence—to stir the coals of Marion’s unconscious. And Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, provides a sensitive canvas for the shadow play of her psyche.
Like Bergman, Allen luxuriates in examining characters stranded at the crossroads of emotion and intellect. In a Bergman movie, they could also be stuck on a cold island in an empty universe. Allen’s world is warmer, more sentimental: his island is Manhattan, where at every intersection the possibility of hailing a cab at least offers a form of escape. Another Woman takes place in the same world as Allen’s best comedies, a society of tweedy New Yorkers dealing with adultery and identity. The film is also shot on familiar turf, in the same few cherished blocks of Manhattan where Allen lives, works and goes to restaurants.
The other domestic touch is the casting of Allen’s companion, Mia Farrow, as Hope. Although all of her costars are working with Allen for the first time, Farrow has acted in eight of his 17 movies. As in September, she portrays a weepy, vulnerable woman, a tragic complement to the comic personality that Allen adopts when he appears in his movies. He tends to play characters who sublimate the embarrassing business of emotion into a neurotic Ping-Pong game between ego and id. With Another Woman, he has effaced himself by staying off screen—but also by restraining his impulse to upstage the drama with self-conscious displays of intellect.
Allen has made an excellent film without a single clever joke. And he has managed to avoid the bathos that sapped the energy from his earlier failed experiments at being serious. Now that Allen has finally made a good impression at the grown-ups’ table, he can excuse himself—and, if he wishes, resume the business of creating popular comedies with no need to apologize.
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