After the sprawling canvases of Hannah and her Sisters and Radio Days, Woody Allen went as minimal as he could with September. This is a chamber piece that’s more like a play than a film, with only six characters in one location. It is even tighter, and more serious, than Interiors. It is not as mannered, but it is also not as interesting. It’s actually dull.
The events of a few almost autumn days take place in the summer cottage of Lane (Mia Farrow) who has an unrequited crush on the tenant in her guest house, a writer played by Sam Waterston. At the same time a neighbour, played by Denholm Elliot, has an unrequited crush on Lane’s friend, Stephanie (Dianne Wiest). The only happy couple is Lane’s mother (a brash, former actress played by Elaine Stritch) and stepfather (a genial scientist played by Jack Warden).
That could sound like the makings of a classic French farce, but here Woody went the other way and created a Chekhovian drama; a thicket of repressed desire. The cast is excellent, and the performances are all fine, but they are played in such a natural style that the dreary story drags. September is only 80 minutes long, but it feels like much longer. Unusually for Woody there are some very cliched lines of dialogue and dramatic situations.
What is most interesting about the film, and what other reviewers tended to focus on as they presumably tried to find something interesting to say, is the film’s production. September was filmed entirely on a sound stage, with several long takes. As we never leave the house, the challenge was to create lighting and a set that would sustain interest. It possibly would have if the story was more involving. (Even the Big Reveal Of A Dramatic Moment In A Character’s Past is glossed over.)
Another interesting tidbit about September is that it was filmed twice. Woody usually allows for extensive reshoots, but in this case he chose to reshoot the entire film as the solitary set was still standing. That meant new cast members, with performances by Sam Shepard, Maureen O’Sullivan and Charles Durning scratched. Woody’s DVDs are never big on special features, so we are unlikely to ever see that first version.
Speaking of DVDs, September marks the beginning one of the MGM boxsets of later 80s films that mostly weren’t that well received nor are fondly remembered. I wanted to find more to like or be interested in on this viewing of September, but once again it left me flat. The characters are kind of interesting, and the set-up of kind of intriguing, but it just tends to go nowhere and offer nothing new to say. It is both tightly constructed and left to ramble.
I perked up when a character plays a superb record of Ben Webster and Art Tatum at one point. Then I realised that if I’m more interested in the background music than the rest of the film, something must be wrong.
Next week: Another Woman