A decade after his first foray into pure drama with the woefully self-conscious Interiors, and only a year removed from the awkwardly staged September, 1988’s Another Woman announced with quietly assured bravura Woody Allen’s mastery of what theretofore had alluded his directorial grasp: the psychological character study, entirely absent of humor. Initially the prospect of an Allen film sans slapstick, neurotic riffing, or charming whimsy might seem egregious, if not downright pretentious—take away the laughs and what’s left might be a platitudinous existentialism (how does man cope in a godless universe, et al) probed by insufferable academics (always WASPs in these pure dramas, all traces of Allen’s Jewishness vanishing in the Manhattan air when he foregoes the anxious relief of irony) within the stuffy confines of Upper East Side penthouses and Vermont getaways. But no. Putting aside the question of god and relegating to a relatively less important status Allen’s obsession with romantic relationships, Another Woman focuses on an individual’s dealings with the people around her—husbands, lovers, friends, family—and herself, revealing a censorious, emotionally isolated life in need of thoughtful reconsideration. It’s a well-trodden “journey of self-discovery” from cold intellectualism to warm humanism, but Allen’s generous understanding of character and the delusions that deform it yield unique findings: his sympathetic treatment (literally—Another Woman is one of the cinema’s most positive portrayals of psychoanalysis) of Gena Rowlands’s middle-aged professor pays fitting homage to personal hero Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, which would later find its humorous, testosterone-fueled update in Deconstructing Harry. Here the journey is instead delicately, soberly undertaken, but no less devastatingly cathartic for all of that.
Philosophy professor Rowlands’s self-evaluation gets set in motion when, in the apartment she has rented to begin writing a book, she overhears through a grate therapy sessions taking place on the same hall. It’s the disparity between sound (the anguished confessions of Mia Farrow) and image (the expressions of reawakened sorrow and regret playing out on Rowlands’s countenance) in these scenes that demonstrate Another Woman’s two finest assets: the cinematography of the late, legendary D.P. (and, not coincidentally, Bergman’s career-long collaborator) Sven Nykvist, working with Allen for the first of four times and creating in his signature style naturalistic compositions imparting, but not overstating, interior distress; and the heartbreaking performance—perhaps, along with Sean Penn’s in Sweet and Lowdown, the most moving in any Allen film—of Rowlands. Allen gives her some of his best dramatic material to work with in Another Woman, from her regretful push-pull affair with amorous Gene Hackman, to her loveless, logical marriage to Ian Holm (“I accept your condemnation”), to painful encounters with Harris Yulin, the brother kept at arm’s length out of a sense of superiority, and former best friend Sandy Dennis, in one of those teeth-on-edge sessions of brutal honesty that Allen loves almost as much as a pithy one-liner. These and other encounters play out as memories, fantasies, and, in the one sequence where Another Woman nearly stumbles over its own feet, a dream that lead toward Rowlands’s gradual realization of her suffocating inability to feel and love even with a life of comfort, privilege, and success. If that sounds trite—and the prospect of Farrow as a pregnant symbol named Hope sounds like the absolute last straw—consider that Another Woman—out of its stylized verbiage, modest aesthetic, and glorious use of an orchestral version of Satie’s “Gymnopedies,” and despite the off-putting remoteness of its intelligentsia milieu—really must be seen to know just how effective its mode of inquiry really is. In only 82 minutes Allen develops a nuanced portrait of a lady that cinematically earns the lines from Rilke it (following Philip Roth) unapologetically quotes: “For here there is no place that will not see you . . . You must change your life.” Plays January 4 at Film Forum.