[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
As if to avoid distracting mumbles of “Oh, guess where he got that!” in the middle of his unashamedly imitative first non-comedy, Woody Allen gets his most Bergmanesque shot out of the way right up front. It’s a soft, dreamy, quiet interior of a woman running her hand inquiringly across a windowpane; and it establishes straightaway the film’s inside/outside polarity, with the woman seemingly trying to comprehend the shell that separates one existence from another. The glass of the window, like the wall of the eye, or the lens of the camera, is the transparent, impenetrable, inexorable demarcation between the in-here and the out-there. Nothing new; but from here Allen goes on to build a distinctly American Bergman film, accessible, even downright obvious in contrast with the Swedish master’s arcane musings.
And what is it about? Well, nothing new here either. The neurotic Jewish kid, the King of Compensation, has made his first “serious” film about a Mother and her domination of her children’s lives. That in itself is a joke, making a brooding, delicate chamber film out of an idea that has so often been the source of Jewish comedy, both high and low. Eveâ€”the archetypal Mother, magnificently portrayed by Geraldine Pageâ€”is made to loom large, through makeup, costuming, and camera angles, and it is a largeness that overwhelms, in one way or another, the lives of all three of her daughters, as revealed in the sparse dialogue and in the eloquent silence the film so often insists on. It’s odd, this silence, in a chamber film made by a self-styled jazz musician. The absence of music makes us assign musical values to the characters, shots, and scenes; and, in fact, music may be missing just so we will see the film as a series of set-piecesâ€”often improvisationalâ€”for small instrumental combos. The only scene in the film that calls for more than a quintet is also the only one in which music is actually heard, and it’s big band jazz, to which is set the wedding night dance of Eve’s estranged husband Arthur (E.G. Marshall) and his second wife Pearl (Maureen Stapleton is splendid). Pearl is anti-intellectual, Arthur’s second chance, the three girls’ would-be replacement mother, who both figuratively andâ€”in the film’s most obvious momentâ€”literally breathes fresh air back into the stale world of these neurotic intellectual impotents.
But if the symbolism is often heavyhanded, it’s partly because the film is about structure and its domination of the life-force. When Joey (Marybeth Hurt) talks quietly to her mother on her father’s second wedding night, we don’t see Eve for a long time because we are really supposed to doubt that she is there, to feel the extent to which the daughter is literally haunted by the mother. The mother is carefully placed outside, the daughter just inside. The same kind of structural obviousness is employed to greater effect in an earlier scene, when Allen juxtaposes family with non-family (anti-family?): Pearl chats, jokes, and plays card tricks with Arthur’s two sons-in-law in the living room; cut to Arthur and two daughters in the bedroom, having a tense discussion about Arthur’s intent to marry Pearl. Throughout the film, life is pressed into the service of structure, never the other way around. Gordon Willis’s cinematography is his most confined yet, emphasizing portraiture: faces, poses, and backgrounds that reveal character and emotion without words. The dominion of structure reveals itself, too, in the montage and the juxtaposition of sound and image. After a quiet scene with Arthur and Eve, her hopes of patching things up between them stalemated by his gentle insistence on independence, Allen cuts suddenly to the noise of tape being peeled off a roll, amplified beyond realism: the sound is one of violent tearing apart, while the image (tape rolled and pressed over the spaces around windows) is one of patching or mending. The contrast between sight and sound reflects the contrast between Eve’s and Arthur’s desires, and their temperaments. And, of course, the taping of window-leaks is prologue to a suicide attempt by Eve.
Allen’s devotion to Form makes the film’s visual dynamics increasingly predictable near the end, and especially in the final shot; but at times, particularly early on, it leads to wonderful invention, as in the shot where Eve is moving around her room alone, arranging things. As she leaves the frame, the camera stubbornly refuses to pan or track her; but her next move, to put something down on an offscreen table, is neatly picked up as a reflection in an onscreen picture-frame: a clever visual pun, and a statement about the precision of her life as well as that of Allen’s film. Allen’s Bergmania, however, seems to replace any real heart in his film; its formalism tends to inhibit the very emotional response it wants to reach out for. Joey criticizes her mother’s approach to life: “Beautiful furniture, carefully designed interiors, everything so controlled.” It might just as well be a description of the film; and, of course, it is. Joey is the character in the film who, in appearance and temperament, is most like the absent Woody; and this film, like every other Woody Allen film, is an exercise in self-criticism.
© 1979 Robert C. Cumbow
Screenplay and direction: Woody Allen. Cinematography: Gordon Willis. Production design: Mel Bourne. Editing: Ralph Rosenblum. Production: Charles H. Joffe.
The players: Kristin Griffith, Marybeth Hurt, Richard Jordan, Diane Keaton, E.G. Marshall, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Sam Waterston.