(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
Let me go on record as one of the few people in America who liked Interiors.
I first saw it a few years after its initial release, by which time the furor about comedian Woody Allen having dared to film a laugh-free drama had died down. But it continues to inspire hostility among many of Allen’s followers. In his recent biography about Allen, David Evanier deemed the movie “practically unwatchable” and “dead on arrival.” While I concede that the movie is often very tony and talky, and it certainly makes countless nods to Allen’s idol Ingmar Bergman, I’d hardly call the movie unwatchable.
The story concerns an upper-class family whose members could finance some analysts’ sessions for several years. The family has three sisters, all of whom crave respect: Flyn (Kristen Griiffith), a successful actress who feels she’s wasting her talent in vapid TV dramas; poet Renata (Diane Keaton), also successful, who worries that her work isn’t enough to earn her immortality; and Joey (Marybeth Hurt), who flits from job to thankless job and wishes she could express herself creatively. These women have been raised in the dark shadow of their mother Eve (Geraldine Page), who is obsessed with perfection in the aesthetic world around her as she leaves her daughters’ psyches in tatters.
Eve is in the midst of estrangement from her long-time husband Arthur (E.G. Marshall), who has finally come to regard his seemingly perfect home as an “ice palace.” Eve holds out a naive hope that Arthur will come back to her, but in a low-key yet tense scene, he announces to the family that he wants what he euphemistically calls “a trial separation” from Eve. It’s a pivotal scene in the movie, as we watch hostility and sorrow quietly boil over at the family dinner table. It gets even worse for the daughters when, at the movie’s halfway point, Arthur brings home his new girlfriend Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), whose bohemian ways and zest for life throw the family and the home completely out of kilter.
I can see why moviegoers find Interiors off-putting. The family is obsessed with upper-middle-class concerns (what people these days would call “First World Problems”), and they express themselves all too verbosely. (At one point, Joey tells her mother, “There’s been perverseness, and willfulness of attitude in many of the things you’ve done” — not exactly the kind of sentiment you ought to express to your mentally ill parent.) The movie’s naysayers have said Woody Allen seems to have cribbed this kind of dialogue from the subtitles of Bergman’s movies. Yet I truly believe that this is exactly the kind of way that these women’s repressive mother has probably taught them to express themselves.
David Evanier opines that “The family in Interiors was a family that Allen knew nothing about.” Perhaps you’d have had to live with a woman like Eve to believe that such people really exist. (I did live with a mother figure like Eve, about which the least said the better.) But I found this family all too believable, and Allen does a superb job of showing his characters as tortured and often hostile, but not unlikable. And Allen (expectedly) does not cop out with a happy ending for the movie; it depicts several “life lessons” from which one would expect the characters to have learned something about themselves, yet they remain rigid and frigid right to movie’s end.
I can’t help thinking that if this movie had been released anonymously and that we hadn’t known that it came from a man best known for his all-stops-out comedies, the movie might have gotten a little more credit. (Two years after Interiors came out, movie star and first-time director Robert Redford earned plaudits and Oscars for Ordinary People, which explored a similarly repressive middle-class milieu.) Befitting the movie’s austere setting, Allen’s direction is appropriately spartan, with shots and scenes that quietly make their points and then move briskly on rather than wallowing in melodrama (as Allen, in interviews at the movie’s time of release, feared he was doing).
Interiors might not be to everyone’s tastes, but don’t tell me it isn’t lifelike, because I’ve met too many pretentious people with the same kinds of hangups. It’s an excellent foray into pure drama from a man who found that he can’t always use comedy to soften life’s harsher moments.