Woody Allen has said many times that he considers Ingmar Bergman the greatest of modern filmmakers. "Interiors," opening today at the Jenifor 2 and Roth's Tysons Corner 5, is the utterly sincere, inescapably preposterous result of Allen's irresistible impulse to create a movie in the Bergmanesque vein and determine, in his own words, "if I had any flair for serious drama."
When the credits begin, the flashes of simple white lettering against a black background are sufficient warning of the solemn angst revue that lies ahead. The sepulchral hush is even more intimidating. It reminds you that you'll be expected to behave as you would at church services. Or funeral services.
The openings of movies like "Taxi Driver" and "Who'll Stop the Rain" immediately rivet attention with mysterious, hyperbolic imgages and ominous undercurrents of music. "Interiors" imposes a portentous formality that seems deliberately starved of sensuous appeal. It's obvious that Allen has serious intentions, but they're expressed in bloodless, superficial, derivative ways.
Allen's scenario is designed to illuminate the unhappiness gnawing away at a well-to-do New York family dominated by a matriarch, played by Geraldine Page, whose profession is interior decoration. Her preference for fearful, sparsely furnished symmetry and a color range extending from white to beige is at once a symbol of fussy sterility and an inspiration to the filmmaker, who seems to duplicate and endorse her taste while lamenting its repressive emotional consequences for her family.
This domineering mother, who is named Eve, seems to be in permanent eclipse when the story begins, a detail that helps contribute to the anticlimactic ambience. Before Eve enters we learn that her lawyer husband Arthur, played by E.G. Marshall, ended years of loyal submission by requesting a separation and moving out. This shock induced a nervous breakdown from which Eve hasn't quite recovered. Twittery and woebegone from the outset, Geraldine Page's Eve seems a dreary maternal nag perhaps, but she never satisfies one's idea of a formidable domestic tyrant.
Eve and Arthur have three daughters. Renata, played by Diane Keaton in a severe, sneering fashion that might actually have enhanced her performace in "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," is a respected, embittered poet, first encountered confessing platitudinous fears of creative impotence and death to an unseen analyst. Flyn, played by Kristin Griffith, is a relatively content cutie who works in Los Angeles as a TV actress, Joey, played by Marybeth Hurt, who bears a curious resemblance to Woody Allen, is a rising reservoir of resentment, owing to her lack of vocation and obligation to cope with mother more often than her older sisters.
Renata has a writer husband, Frederick, played by Richard Jordan. Fearing that he is a mediocre novelist, Frederick overcompensates by evolving into a caustic literary critic. His character alone would betray the resounding banality of Allen's vision of emotional torment among the intelligentsia.
"Interiors" has only one source of suspense: Eve's hope that she can affect a reconciliation with Arthur. This hope is dashed when he turns up with a new romance, an amiable two-time widow named Pearl and played with delightful, soul-restoring gusto by Maureen Stapleton.
Exceedingly welcome comic relief. Pearl seems to function as a symbolic rebuke to the tormented affectations and obsessions Allen has been indulging. Affectionate, extroverted and commonsensical, she blithely undermines all the introspective, gloomy vanities of the "intellectual" characters. Like Martha Raye in Chaplin's "Monsieur Verdoux," she's the life force in a degenerate, demoralized social setting.
It's also tempting to read Pearl as the signal that Woody Allen will return to a fundamentally comic approach after this honorable but misbegotten plunge into deadly seriousness. The denouement itself hints at a symbolic renewal from the comic fount. After more or less talking her poor mother into a watery grave, hateful little Joey is brought back to life when Pearl administers artificial respiration to her.
The conscious side of Woody Allen evidently respects and desires to imitate the cinema of Bergman. Ironically, Allen seemed at once more authentic and more serious when he devised parodies of Bergman in his own comic sketches, TV skits and motion pictures. Allen's originality is basically and often brilliantly comic. It derives from an unconscious that provides him with a uniquely warped, humorous view of experience. Repressing that unconscious comic vision, as he struggles to do throughout most of "Interiors." does not liberate a profound serious view of life. It merely exposes the commonplace nature of Allen's thoughts when he presumes to wax philosophical.
The level of Deep Thinking in "Interiors" would make a title like "Surfaces" seem more appropriate. Can anyone take a kvetch like Renata to heart when she complains, "My impotence set in six years ago" or "I can't seem to shake the real implication of dying; it's terrifying, the intimacy of it embarrasses me"?
When Allen tries to articulate the big profundities, he invariably sounds like the twerpiest of intellectuals. Here's Joey dishing it out to her mother: "What about those of us who can't create? I feel such rage for you. You're not just a sick woman. The truth is, there's been perverseness and willfulness of attitude in the things you've done. At the center of a sick psyche there is a sick spirit. I love you. There is no choice: We have to forgive each other."
Allen has kidded this self-centered cant so effectively in the past that it's bewildering to find him wallowing in it. In their comedies Allen occasionally entrusted Diane Keaton with a line that sounded too much like something he should have said. "Interiors" demands that she snappishly articulate lines you wouldn't wish on Ali MacGraw, Candice Bergen or Lois Chiles. Could anyone bring conviction to "It's hard to argue that in the face of death, life loses its meaning"? Maybe Prof. Irwin Corey.
Just as there's something absurdly obvious about that line, the pseudo-profound mood appears to reveal embarrassing limitations in Allen. His depiction of characters alleged to make their living as writers is as silly as Hollywood at its most novelettish. We never hear a smidgen of Renata's vaunted verse, although we watch her scratch out a line upside down and then stare out the window at a tree, which had me hoping in vain that she'd rush back and begin scribbling, "I think that I shall never see . . ." Frederick does a trifle better, coming up with a self-criticism that could apply to the movie itself: "I'm all form and no content."
"Interiors" was a movie Allen had to get out of his system. Since he keeps his own counsel and sets fairly exacting standards for himself, he is unlikely to be deluded into believing that "Interiors" transforms him into an American Jewish Bergman even if it's lavishly acclaimed and commercially successful. He has attained a special status, immeasurably enhanced by the popularity of "Annie Hall." Most constant moviegoers will want to see what he's up to even if they decide he' barking up the wrong tree.
Allen's next two projects happen to be comedies, an indication that "Interiors" failed to satisfy his own expectations.
And one can imagine the experience serving to strengthen Allen's comic techniques. For example, the austerely concentrated style of composition he and photographer Gordon Willis try to adapt from the Bergman films shot by Sven Nykvist could prove more effective in a comic setting, fusing vivid content with visual precision.
In "Interiors" the streamlined imagery tends to drain the last ounce of vitality from emotionally depleted characters and situations. Look for the silver lining: Sometimes it takes a stale experiment to give a filmmaker a fresh outlook.