By dave heaton
Most writers who have tackled Woody Allen or his films inevitably look through the lens of Allen's personal life. If a character wants to have an affair with a younger woman, it's an expression of Allen's own relationship with Soon-Yi. If a character is nervous about becoming a father, this is an expression of Allen's own feelings in that regard, and so on. Of course, this critical habit is partly because of the casting in Allen's films, the fact that he stars in so many of his films or that, for example, Mia Farrow and Allen play an unhappy couple in Husbands and Wives. Even outside of the film critics' circle (for example, in the "news" media), it has become pretty much impossible to discuss Woody Allen films without talking about Allen's personal life. Even the film studios seem to be reacting to this by distancing Allen's films from Allen himself; for example, the video box for Celebrity makes no mention of Allen whatsoever. The effect of the problem with separating artistic endeavors from private lives is that Allen's movies are perennially understudied in a serious manner; even when they are studied in criticism the writers still tend to fall into the habit of reporting items from the gossip column. What they are missing, among other things, is how thoroughly Allen's films depict human behavior, specifically how people deal with life choices.
I recently watched Woody Allen's last two films, Celebrity and Sweet and Lowdown, during the same week or so and noticed an obvious similarity between the main characters' situations. Both of the male lead characters end up in sad, hurt states of mind, obviously regretful of the choices they've made in their lives, mostly involving love relationships. Kenneth Branaugh's character in Celebrity is particularly characteristic of a Woody Allen film, a man who is eternally dreaming of what his life might be like if he made a change, particularly in the area of love, and who then takes that chance, only to become unhappy with that choice and end up dreaming of how much happier he might be if he made a different choice, and so on. This pondering of how things might be different or could have been different comes up in nearly every movie that Woody Allen has made since he shifted from pure comedies to the mixture of comedy and drama that exists in most of the movies he has made in the last 15 years or so.
In a lot of ways, Woody Allen's movies can be seen as the cinema of "what-might-have been" and "what-could-be." Most of Allen's main characters are unsatisfied with the choices they have made in life, whether regarding careers, love affairs or family life (i.e. whether or not to have a child). Even seemingly "light" comedies like Manhattan Murder Mystery include subplots where a character (in this case, Diane Keaton's character especially) flirts with the idea of having an affair or making a career change, of making up for choices made earlier in life. In several films, like Celebrity and Sweet and Lowdown, the characters continually make the wrong choices, leaving them in a state of melancholy induced by finally realizing they have been perennially choosing to chase an idea which didn't turn out like they imagined it would. This frustration is illustrated in both films by memorable images ("Help" written in the air by a sky plane and the ferocious smashing of a guitar). In other films it is a positive turning point when the main characters realize that the choices they've made have left them unhappy. In Alice, for example, the title character gets the help she needs to break free from her humdrum life and follow the specter of "what could be."
A key movie for this theme of Woody Allen as the filmmaker of "what ifs" and "might-have-beens" is the often overlooked 1988 film Another Woman, one of the trio of Allen films (along with September and Interiors) generally described as his Bergmanesque dramas (meaning Ingmar Bergman). An in-depth examination of this film really highlights how careful a writer Allen can be. Nearly everything in the screenplay, even the quickest, smallest line, points directly toward the film's major subject, the realization of a 50-year-old woman that she has been deceiving herself about the choices she has made in life. Unlike some of the above-mentioned movies, in Another Woman, the main character has been avoiding thinking about "what-might-have-been" for most of her life. The film is about a character finally coming to consider the "what-if" and "what-might-have-been" questions that so many Allen characters ponder; when she does she, she finds in a heartbreaking but ultimately freeing experience.
The film's main character, Marion Post (Gena Rowlands), seems to live a secure, orderly life. She is an accomplished philosophy teacher who lives each day by a strict schedule. She is always giving advice, the type of person who seems to always know what's best for everyone. As she admits to us in the movie's opening scene (the film uses a voiceover narration which serves as Post's inner monologue about what she is feeling), her motto is, "If something seems to be working, leave it alone."
Lately, she is having trouble writing a book. When she rents an office in the city in order to shut out the world enough to focus on writing, a series of events happen which lead her shield of security to slowly fall apart. Post and her husband Ken (Ian Holm) have a passionless marriage, where their only conversations are superficial and formal. Marion is polite but judgmental towards her friends and family, including Laura, Ken's daughter from a previous marriage, and Marion's friend Lydia (Blythe Danner). In general, Marion lives behind a fašade concerning her life and the lives of those close to her. Other major characters include Marion's brother Paul, currently going through a divorce, and Larry (Gene Hackman), a past acquaintance of Marion whose romantic advances she shunned.
Much of the film's drama is based on what happens after, while writing in her office, Post discovers that, through the ventilation system, she can hear the private conversations of the nextdoor therapist and his patients. One day, Post hears the voice of a woman which is, Post's words, "such an angry, heartwrenching sound that I was totally arrested by its sadness." The revelations of this particular woman, Hope (Mia Farrow), are arresting to Post, who, after struggling with whether to listen or not (essentially, whether to open herself up to internal feelings), becomes hooked on listening to her voice. Farrow's character talks of undergoing a change where she realized she had been deluding herself into believing her life was perfect (that her husband wasn't cheating on her, etc.). She says it was "as if a curtain had parted, and I was afraid of what I had seen, and what I had to look forward to." This could easily be a description of what Post experiences as the film goes on.
Much of the early moments of the film take the form of a series of anecdotes, like chapters in a book. Events keep occuring which cause Marion to think about her life now and to remember moments from the past. The film mixes moments from the past with moments from the present and, as the film proceeds, dreams that Marion has, mostly dealing with decisions she made in the past or ways that she dealt with particular people and situations. The bulk of the film involves slowly revealing Marion's life to the viewers, as she comes to grip with it herself. This is the portrait of a woman in hiding, finally letting her emotions out after years of wearing a mask to everyone, including herself. The film has a series of striking incidents from Marion's past, present, and dreamlife. A few of the most memorable include:
-A remembrance of a party interrupted by Ken's ex-wife coming to gather her posessions. The awkardness of this scene is captured perfectly, and the reactions of various characters to this one incident does a lot to reveal aspects of their personalities. Marion pretty much ignores the incident, "an embarrassing experience." Ken reacts with a cold expression, delivered by Ian Holm as if it's a stock phrase he has practiced for moments like these: "Forgive me, I accept your condemnation."
-A scene where Marion and Laura go to visit Marion's father (John Houseman), and it becomes clear, when discussing the life and death of Marion's mother, that he also is in the habit of creating his own version of life, forgetting the troubling parts. "There are times when even a historian shouldn't look at the past," he says, in a stern but tired way. Laura, young and idealistic (and therefore in continual contrast with Marion), asks Marion's father if he thinks he might fall in love again, and is later chastised for it by Marion.
-Marion, looking through her mother's book of Rilke's poems, finds her mother's favorite poem, the pages marked by tears, and reads the last line: "For here there is a place that does not see you/You must change your life now."
-In a dream, Marion discusses Hope with her psychiatrist. He says she is suffering from "self-deception," and that she has been slowly, methodically killing herself for years, words that obviously (to the viewer at least) could as easily describe Marion.
I see no reason to write about everything we learn about Marion, her life and her feelings, because even though this is not a plot-heavy movie, it is still based in part on a series of revelations. The film unfolds slowly but perfectly, letting us know a little more here and there until we eventually see the whole picture, at the same time that Marion finally allows herself to see the whole picture. Allen's visual style for the film is often straightforward and, in a way, ordinary, using bland, muted colors to echo the way Marion has been living. Other times it is very dreamlike, as scenes from the past flow into scenes from the present and scenes from dreams. It is fitting that Marion's dreams mostly take place on the stage, as she watches a theatrical production which depicts the way that she has been acting and wearing disguises in real life. Another Woman is a depiction of a woman learning to shed her masks and start anew, who is struggling to find the hope she needs to make the choices necessary to change her life.