In heaven’s name, what comes over Woody Allen in his “serious” movies, what feel like his dead serious ones--the Bergman trilogy of “Interiors,” “September” and now “Another Woman”?
“Hannah and Her Sisters,” even “Radio Days,” confronted the real stuff of life, but neither set off Allen’s Serious Movie alarm that makes him expunge every trace of levity. It’s not levity, Woody, it’s leavening.
Allen touches a chord that few adults can fail to recognize. He tells his psychological drama of a woman at the peak of life--with everything in perfect order, or at least under perfect control--who discovers that nothing is as she imagines it.
But this time Allen’s perfect ear has failed him. The words refuse to leave the page; his large, good cast has to pry them up as best they can and deliver them, one weighted block at a time.
In some strange way, “Another Woman” (at the Coronet and Fairfax) feels translated, and not from a language where wit or lightness is cherished. It has the stilted rhythms, not of Bergman’s Swedish but of Bergman subtitles. With only one or two startling exceptions, particularly Gene Hackman and Frances Conroy (and she has the smallest of moments), the actors seem stifled, as stiff and muted as their surroundings. (Among them are Mia Farrow, Martha Plimpton, Sandy Dennis, Blythe Danner and John Houseman.)
Gena Rowlands narrates as Marion, a successful writer and professor of German philosophy who has sublet a Manhattan apartment to work on her second book. Because of a trick in the building’s acoustics, she finds herself an unwilling third party to the hourly sessions of the psychiatrist in the adjoining apartment.
Primly, she blocks the sound, but one voice cuts through to her: the anguished outpouring of a young woman grappling with feelings that every part of her life is a deception and that even the husband who lies beside her at night is a stranger.
Something in this shattering confession, formless and apparently insoluble, touches Rowlands, especially when she peers out to discover that the woman (Farrow) is hugely pregnant and palpably wretched. (Her name, I regret to say, is Hope, or if you prefer, Device.)
Why would this disembodied voice resonate so? Allen suggests that Rowlands recognizes in Farrow, whom “emotions have always embarrassed,” an image of herself, but one literally pregnant--with possibilities and with perhaps the desire to change. Now, on Farrow’s appointment day, Rowlands crouches by the ventilator grate like a cat at a mouse hole, broodingly anxious about her.
Rowlands tries to follow her, finding instead real and memory figures of her own past. Soon, the professor is moved to the upheaval of self-appraisal, noticing for the first time the cool control with which she has kept herself away from life’s intrinsic messiness.
It has led her into an early marriage to an older mentor-teacher (Philip Bosco) and into a second one to a successful heart surgeon (Ian Holm). And, before that second marriage, it has sent her scurrying away from the passion promised by Hackman, as a writer-friend of Holm’s who is not above pointing out Holm’s essential priggishness.
As friends, lovers, family, the past, present and dreams blend, Allen blurs his time frame so that sometimes the adult Marion appears in her own past, peering in at her father (Houseman) or her disappointed older brother (Harris Yulin). It’s as Yulin’s prickly wife that Frances Conroy has one of the film’s electric scenes, making you realize the torpor into which the rest of the cast seem to have fallen.
The problem is partly Allen’s dialogue, which contains the actors like the lead aprons at a dental X-ray. All very well for Ian Holm to say magisterially to ex-wife Betty Buckley, who’s pitching a well-deserved fit: “Forgive me. I accept your condemnation.” He’s supposed to be the stuffed shirt of the piece. But everyone else speaks that way too.
As Sandy Dennis, a successful actress, accuses Rowlands of poaching on one of her boyfriends in their past, she snarls: “Your conversations were full of subtle flirtations,” only to have Rowlands volley back, “I never accepted any of his overtures.” Miss Manners writes livelier stuff than this.
But there’s also the question of why Allen, of all living directors, has so relentlessly rooted out humor as a characteristic of any of these contemporary New Yorkers. (The only time he uses it, in a set-piece joke, it’s to warn us that the characters involved are hot numbers.) It’s as though, as he imagined the chitchat of Bryn Mawr graduates, German philosophy mavens and surgeons, Woody lost his good common sense.
Rowlands struggles prodigiously to illuminate Marion, but like the dialogue, that narration is solid mahogany and it defeats even her. (It also has peculiar lapses: Marion’s voice tells us that she and Hope had lunch, “But it was me who wound up doing most of the talking.” Me?! From a professor of this academic tidiness? Come now.)
With Sven Nykvist again as his cameraman, Woody Allen has pulled the cloak of Ingmar Bergman closely around him, only to get his feet tangled in the hem and the hood down over his eyes.
And like the interplanetary visitors from “Stardust Memories,” we can only peer in at him, waiting for him to get back, not to the funny stuff, but to the blend of insight, pain, passion, compassion and funny stuff that is Allen’s alone.
An Orion Pictures release of a Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe Production. Producer Robert Greenhut. Writer, director Woody Allen. Executive producers Rollins, Joffe. Camera Sven Nykvist. Production design Santo Loquasto. Editor Susan E. Morse. Costumes Jeffrey Kurland. Art director Speed Hopkins. With Philip Bosco, Betty Buckley, Blythe Danner, Sandy Dennis, Mia Farrow, Gene Hackman, Ian Holm, John Houseman, Martha Plimpton, David Ogden Stiers, Harris Yulin, Frances Conroy.
Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes.
MPAA-rated: PG (parental guidance suggested).