Another Woman, like September, looks like an inessential Woody Allen film. It is yet another unpopular, moderately reviewed movie about the same types of people with the same types of problems. Unlike September, however, which only moderately exceeded its low expectations, Another Woman not only feels essential, but fresh, original and skillful.
Another Woman is really the first time that Woody Allen has made an in-depth character study of a single person (other than himself). His films tend to focus on a variety of characters (i.e. Hannah and her Sisters), or on an underlying theme that exists outside of the film’s world (i.e. The Purple Rose of Cairo). Almost uniformly, unless the character is played by Allen, the focus is on characters’ feelings right now, and their decisions going forward. Despite what this film’s title and cover art might suggest, this is a movie about one woman: Marion Post (played by Gena Rowlands). But it’s not just about what she’s doing now — Allen uses dramatic tools he’s rarely touched (flashbacks, dreams), and paints a portrait of a woman’s entire life.
The role was originally written for Mia Farrow, but when she became pregnant, she was relegated to a smaller, supporting role. Dianne Wiest (who, in the last few movies, has been starting to rival Farrow in terms of screen time) was cast in her place, but then she decided to take time off from acting to be with her newly adopted daughter. Some directors might have put the project on hold for a few months and waited for their desired star to become de-pregnated (which tends to happen on a relatively predictable schedule), but in the time that would take, a director as prolific as Allen could fall two or three movies behind pace.
It’s actually quite ironic that two consecutive actresses stepped aside due to familial additions, given the tormented relationship Marion has with children. At one point, she expresses great, tearful regret over never having had children — a scene that would have been undermined, somewhat, if it had been played by a visibly pregnant actress.
The actress that Allen ended up casting was Gena Rowlands, best known for the movies she made with her husband John Cassavetes, especially A Woman Under the Influence, in which she gave one of cinema’s most iconic female performances. In Another Woman she doesn’t have the showy, dominating presence she’s famous for, but she’s just as convincing in a quieter way.
As the movie begins, it establishes a tone completely different than that of any other Woody Allen movie so far. The opening scenes are filled with a cinematic element relatively new to Allen: suspense. Marion (Rowlands), in her apartment, finds that she’s able to clearly hear the conversations in the next apartment over (it’s actually a therapists’ office). Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, Marion becomes engrossed in her neighbors’ lives. We’ve seen Chaplinesque, Bergmanesque, Felliniesque, and even Wellesian (if that’s a word), but this is our first Hitchcockian moment in a Woody Allen movie.
Also new is the film’s style of narration. In other films, voiceovers were used by characters to sort out their feelings (i.e. Hannah and her Sisters) or by an omniscient narrator to provide extra story and character details (i.e. Radio Days). This time, the narration is more reminiscent of film noire — Marion uses it to recount recent actions, stew over puzzles, and set dramatic scenes.
“I laid my head down and closed my eyes, and I guess I dozed off. I don’t know how long I was asleep, but one of the pillows must have slipped off the vent, and I gradually became aware of a voice. A woman’s voice. And it was such an anguished, heart-wrenching sound that I was totally arrested by its sadness.”
The film has some early indications that it might go even further down the thriller route, perhaps becoming a Manhattan variation on Rear Window. One of the neighbors that Marion has become particularly obsessed with is a depressed, pregnant woman who is, ironically, named Hope (Mia Farrow). In addition to listening intently to her conversations through the walls, Marion, in one rather chilling scene, even starts following her.
Suggestions that we might be watching the first Woody Allen suspense thriller are short-lived, however, and before long the movie settles into more familiar Allen territory. Marion is married to a doctor, Ken (played by Chariots of Fire and Lord of the Rings star Ian Holm). Ken seems nice enough, but it’s soon clear that their marriage is falling apart. He’s cold and uninterested, while Marion is still haunted by an ex-husband who (possibly) committed suicide, a former lover that she left behind, and a brother that resents but relies on her.
The movie is about Marion, but she doesn’t talk much about herself (either to other characters or in voiceover). Therefore, we learn about her by seeing her through the eyes of other characters, and with occasional access to her subconscious. One such glimpse comes in a scene that seems to be lifted directly from Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. Marion visits her childhood home, and all of a sudden, we travel back in time to when she was a child. Her father is espousing her virtues to her then-high-school-aged brother, who feels neglected and insulted. Marion (at present age) walks around, observing.
In addition to Wild Strawberries’ time-traveling narrative device, Allen borrows something else from Ingmar Bergman: his cinematographer, Sven Nykvist. In Hannah and her Sisters, I wrote that Carlos Di Palma was Allen’s cinematographer until 1997. While Di Palma did work with Allen on almost all of his movies up to and including 1997’s Deconstructing Harry, what I didn’t realize at the time was that from 1988 to 1989, Di Palma was momentarily displaced by Nykvist. If you’re wondering whether Nykvist’s presence resulted in a more Bergmanseque look, allow me to direct you to following screenshot:
Another glimpse into Marion’s mind comes in a more conventional dream sequence. Characters in Allen’s films have referred to dreams before (i.e. Interiors), and his comedies often poked fun at movie dream sequences (i.e. Bananas), but Marion’s dream is vividly captured, prolonged, and pivotal to the movie.
Another Woman’s core themes are ambiguous for a a large part of the film. As I said, it seems like a thriller for a while, and then starts to look like a relationship drama. But what we eventually realize is that it’s about Marion and her attempts to discover why her relationships have so consistently failed and been fraught with strife and unease. Marion’s lengthy dream serves as the film’s tipping point, giving both the audience and Marion the first clues to the bigger picture.
In her dream, which is filmed effectively with great minimalism and eerie silence, Marion views her life as a theatrical production. It suggests that Marion is still haunted by a number of relationships, some of which previously seemed insignificant. One of those relationships is with her ex-husband Sam (Phillip Bosco), who died in his sleep, possibly of suicide. A much older professor, he wanted to take care of her and raise a family together, although she was too focussed on her career. Another is with Kathy (Betty Buckley), who was once her best friend, but she pushed her away without realizing it.
Perhaps most significantly, she reflects on her mixed feelings towards Larry Lewis (Gene Hackman). In his interview with Jean-Luc Godard that I mentioned a while ago, Woody Allen was complaining about how hard it was to find American movie stars that could be believed as regular guys; that the De Niros and Nicholsons were too sexy and larger-than-life. When I heard that, the first thing I thought was that someone should introduce him to Gene Hackman — one of the greatest American actors, who can exude incredible charisma and authority while still seeming like a guy who could live down the hall. Hackman and Allen seem like they’d make a great team, so it’s disappointing that this is their first and only collaboration (excepting, I suppose, Antz).
That said, Hackman, like Michael Caine, is primarily known as a working-class tough guy, although, also like Caine, he fits seamlessly into Allen’s bourgeois world. Larry is a sensitive, passionate novelist; a former friend of her husband Ken who warned her that she was making a mistake when she first married him. He urged her to instead go with someone who knew her better, someone with more heart, someone who could truly, deeply love (that ‘someone’ being himself).
One of the most noticeable, appreciated changes in Another Woman is its subtlety. So many of Woody Allen’s characters announce themselves as a certain type, and we can guess where things are going. Another Woman has a lot of his favorite archetypes, but they all gravitate a little more toward center, leaving room for interpretation and uncertainty. Should Marion have left Ken for Larry? Would things have turned out differently than they did with Ken? It’s more challenging for Marion (and the audience) to put the puzzle together when not all of the pieces are clear.
In addition to those mentioned in the dream, Marion also has significant relationships with her brother, her daughter-in-law, Hope (Farrow), and of course her husband. Individually, all of these relationships are like the one she has with Larry: muddled, messy, ambiguous. But when you add them all up, they start to paint a consistent portrait of a calculating woman not capable of expressing or accepting real feeling.
Did she leave Larry because she was turned off by how much he cared about her? Did she push away her best friend with shallow competitiveness? Does her brother resent her because she’s told him he’s ‘embarrassing’? Does she intimidate her step-daughter? Was she uncaring towards her ex-husband? Is she, as Hope describes to her therapist, a ‘cold’ woman? Taken individually, none of these questions have a clear answer, but the same issues keep surfacing throughout Marion’s life, and surely that can’t be a coincidence.
Three events near the end of the film start to give Marion some answers. One is her discovery that her husband is having an affair with a more free-spirited friend of theirs. Another comes when she finally reads Larry’s novel, and sees the passion with which he has described a character clearly based on her. Finally, she returns to her apartment’s vent ducts, the source of her earlier eavesdropping, and hears Hope deliver a fairly devastating account of their meeting (the two ran into each other and had lunch, although Marion did not let on that she had been spying on her therapy sessions).
“She’s a woman you’d think would have everything, but she doesn’t. She has nothing. It made me feel frightened. I feel if I don’t stop myself, as the years go by, I’m going to wind up that way. She can’t allow herself to feel, so the result is she’s lived this cold, cerebral life and alienated everyone around her. She’s pretended for so long that everything’s fine, but you can see clearly just how lost she is.”
This scene gives insight into the film’s title, which, for a while, I found confusing and inaccurate. The film is about Marion, but its pivotal moment comes when she is finally able to see herself through the eyes of another woman.
Marion is similar to Hannah and her Sisters’ title character in many ways, and if she had been played by Mia Farrow, as planned, that similarity would only have increased. Hannah is a woman who is desperate to help out and connect with people, and her family is her whole life. Marion, on the other hand, ultimately emerges as a fiercely independent woman. What they have in common is that people in their lives see them as being “perfect,” with or without them. Neither Marion nor Hannah seem to be truly understood by anyone; both put up walls and push people away without realizing it.
Like September, Another Woman is not a plot-heavy film. Unlike September though, there are meaningful, personal revelations. Marion does gain genuine insight into herself, and tries to make changes in her life. Two of the final scenes show her trying to make amends with her brother, after a devastating encounter earlier in the film, and trying to soften the way she’s viewed by her step-daughter. In the 2002 movie Adaptation, Charlie Kaufman says “Movies should be more like real life, where people don’t change.” For the most part, I would agree with that sentiment, and based on most of his films, Woody Allen does as well. But Another Woman shows us a person changing without sacrificing realism. Everything that Marion uncovers about herself, we uncover together with her. At the end of the movie, we see things about her we didn’t see before, and understand her desire to approach life differently.
Another Woman is, I think, the most unfairly overlooked film so far. Despite one of his most formidable casts, Another Woman shines as a result, primarily, of Allen’s directorial skills. Another Woman perfects the Bergmanesque style he’s been toying with ever since Interiors, and finally adds ‘character study’ to the long list of genres he’s mastered.
- A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy standout Mary Steenburgen was cast as Marion’s sister-in-law, but she was replaced by Frances Conroy.
- George C. Scott and Ben Gazzara were up for Ian Holm’s role. Gazzara would have been interesting as it would have meant John Cassavetes’ wife and John Cassavetes’ best friend (not to mention two familiar faces in John Cassavetes’ films) would have been playing a married couple.
- A lot of character actors make their first of several appearances in Woody Allen movies: Blythe Danner (as Ken’s special friend), David Ogden Stiers (as Marion’s father, in her flashback), Frances Conroy, Philip Bosco, and Harris Yulin (Marion’s brother).
- Fred Melamed, best known as Sy Ableman in the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man, makes his second of seven appearances in Woody Allen movies (he also played a doctor in Hannah and her Sisters). He’s the most frequently cast male actor in all of Allen’s films.
- Although it’s obviously not intentional, Mia Farrow seems to be playing the same character she was in September