Spotlight 1978: Interior Design

This entry is part of  Spotlight 1978, a series where we talk about films released in 1978.

Control.

This is what Geraldine Page’s Eve tries to achieve in Woody Allen’s Interiors. As her life slowly breaks down into shards of irrevocable heartaches, she struggles to maintain order and normalcy. The perfectly matched rooms she decorates betrays an inner sadness. As an interior designer, the furniture she arranges and rearranges are things she can meticulously sort and map out. Her emotions are things she can’t.

***

The wan grey palette that permeates throughout the entire movie is indicative of the film’s slow trudge towards gloom. Even though the film is an aesthetic homage to Ingmar Bergman, the movie is filled with themes that we now associate with Woody — the complications and politics of family relationships, the perpetual insecurity of being an artist, the inevitable drive to find meaning despite one’s finite mortality…This film might not be a comedy but it certainly is a product of Allen’s mind.

Geraldine Page’s performance displays the vulnerability and melancholia of a woman trying to maintain a grasp on her sanity. Her emotional breakdown was catalyzed by the departure of her husband, who asks her permission to have a “trial separation” so matter-of-factly that it was candid to the point of cruelty. Every time the camera closes up on her, the light falls with such softness and veneration for the grace of her aged face. This is something from Bergman’s directorial playbook: Allen lets the face speak for his character’s interior life.  In this case, the wrinkles and resignation in her eyes reveals brittleness and a longing for a time when she experienced intimacy in its most profound sense.

She is assisted in her late life tribulations by her three daughters: Renata (Diane Keaton), Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) and Flyn (Kristin Griffith). Each of them represents a different approach on how their mother should cope with her separation and each comes with their own set of neuroses. Renata wants Eve to remain hopeful, to hold on to the possibility that a reconciliation can happen. Joey is a pragmatist who thinks that the sooner her mother comes to accept the reality of her separation, the sooner she can get over her misery and move on with her life. Flyn is a D-list actress living in Hollywood who represents escapism, emptiness, and not confronting one’s demons. Eve gets pushed and pulled in different directions, adding further strain to her already damaged self. Their contradicting advice entrenched her psychosis instead of providing salvation.

The cold rigidity of Eve is confronted by Maureen Stapleton’s Pearl, her husband’s new wife. Allen introduces her in a gown of vibrant red, the complete opposite of the somber blacks and greys of Eve’s wardrobe. Unlike the restrictive, extremely restrained way Eve lives her life, Pearl is filled with vivacity and warmth and tenderness. She might not have the intellect or artistic taste that Eve had, but what she has is an enthusiasm for the spontaneous and the unknown. She thrives in her lack of control.

As their father replaces Eve with Pearl, the Oedipal tension between the three daughters and this stranger grows stronger. But much like Eve’s breakdowns which largely remained under the surface, the friction between them is also mostly concealed. In his movies, Woody Allen designates the shrink’s office, the diary, the narrating voice-over as the spaces where raw, id-driven emotions should explode. They have no place in public places because they disrupt a social harmony that must be maintained. They belong to the cavernous interiors of the human psyche.

***

Interiors is part of a cinematic movement that belongs to the same league as Kramer v.s. Kramer, Scene from a Marriage and other movies in the 70’s that dealt with divorce, separation, and the instability of families. This is Allen’s follow-up to the wildly successful Annie Hall, and its tone could not be any more different. It is one of his most under-appreciated films, with some critics calling it pretentious and accusing Allen of being an outright copycat of Bergman’s work. Granted, this was the first “serious” drama that he made and at this point in his career, he was still better known for his reinvention of American comedy.

The themes he explores here are better laid out in 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, where he is able to construct a more sophisticated family dynamic. Hannah is much more finessed and features characters whose flaws are more real and accessible. He also didn’t have to rely on the dramatic peg of mental illness to tell a dramatic story. But the psychological studies he does here shows a man whose understanding both of the intricacies of the human mind and the narrative structure is eminent. If anything, Interiors was necessary in order to improve the acuity of his latter films. But in terms of intuition, intelligence and insight, this movie is brimming with everything that’s good about Woody Allen.


2 comments
  1. vinnieh said:

    This is a really good review. I only ever thought of Allen as a comedy director, but after reading your review I will have to give Interiors a watch.

  2. Interiors is such a wholly interesting interesting film. For one it’s the most female of all Woody’s film (and with some of his most vivid female characters) and the melancholy and calm, well relative calm, which pervades makes it such a rich viewing experience.

    And what a cast.

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