Another Woman (1988)

Another Woman 1

This post is later than usual because I have to admit that this week’s film, Another Woman, was not what I was expecting. Having watched the film only once before many years ago, I had consigned it to a list of forgettable flops along with September. And sitting through September last week didn’t exactly get me in the mood to watch another Woody-less straight drama. But in fact, Another Woman was a complete surprise. I absolutely enjoyed it and I have been thinking a great deal about it since.

Gena Rowlands plays Marion Post, a philosophy professor in her 50s who rents an apartment as a workspace to finish her latest book. Through an acoustic anomaly in the building’s old ventilation system, Marion overhears the sessions of a psychiatrist in the adjoining room, and is moved by the self-assessment of a woman suffering from a breakdown, played by Mia Farrow. This awakens a kind of self-assessment of Marion, who discovers that she is not as well liked as she thought, and that buried deep beneath her cool exterior is a longing to be closer to her family. She also realises the thin veneer on which her marriage to a man as controlled her she is (played by Ian Holm) is based, and wonders about a lost opportunity to find love with another man (played by Gene Hackman).

Woody Allen fans may recognise the dramatic set-up as using the same device in Everyone Says I Love You. In that film, overhearing a psychiatrist session leads to pure romantic comedy. Here, there are no laughs at all. But unlike September the script is extremely inventive. Voice-overs, flashbacks, memories, imagined scenes, dreams – these are all employed during the film. One dream sequence plays out on a theatre stage, with characters playing other parts.

Another Woman 3

That sounds as if the film is quite experimental, and yet in many ways it isn’t at all. It plays out very calmly, and even blandly. In some ways this is the non-comedy version of Annie Hall, as it shares that film’s structure of a character looking back over a life and over relationships and trying to put everything in order. For once, God doesn’t enter the everyone’s philosophical quagmire. The characters’ problems are their own doing, but in the end, there is hope.

I mentioned the dream sequence, and in fact the whole film almost feels like a dream. The writing has a curious style of little to no subtext; characters say exactly how they are feeling all the time. Even Woody’s direction feels on the nose at times. When the very first shot features Marion looking at her reflection, (‘another woman’, get it?) I thought things could not improve. But in fact because Woody sticks with this style throughout the film, and because the central character’s journey is so unusual and interesting, I fell under its spell.

This was Woody Allen’s first film with the cinematographer Sven Nykvist, though it continues with a similar beige look that Interiors and September had. What is most striking about the film’s style is the sound design, which is something Woody’s films are hardly ever noted for, especially the use of the muffled voices carrying through the vent.

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The performances are all excellent. Character actors like Martha Plimpton, Sandy Dennis and Harris Yulin play alongside leads like Gene Hackman, Mia Farrow and Ian Holm. In his final performance, the theatrical legend John Houseman is very moving as Marion’s academic father who, like her, is full of regrets. David Ogden Stiers is uncanny as the same character many decades earlier in flashback.

But the film really belongs to Gena Rowlands, playing the very difficult role of a seemingly unlikeable, closed-off character. As usual, Woody doesn’t do himself any favours setting the film in the world of the academic New York elite. Similarly, the Rilke and Klimpt references could seem either too high-brow or too obvious. The same could be said for the music, which heavily features Satie’s mesmerising Gymnopedies.

I’m not sure if Woody considers Another Woman a success or not. I know it wasn’t anything close to a hit on release, though critics seemed to admire it. For me, it has been the biggest surprise of this blog thus far. I’m not sure why the film did nothing for me when I first saw it some 15 years ago, but I suspect, like its main character, it has to do with age. This is a film about looking back, and taking time to honestly reevaluate one’s relationships and one’s life. Highly recommended if you’ve reached a point of doing the same.

Next week: Oedipus Wrecks

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