In Woody Allen’s film Stardust Memories, a Martian invader gives Woody Allen’s character, Sandy Bates, the following advice: “You want to do mankind a real service? Tell funnier jokes.” At the time, one didn’t have to talk to aliens to hear some people saying the same thing about Allen’s movies. They wanted funny, funnier, funniest. Raised on Take the Money and a Run, Bananas, and Sleeper, his fans wanted more of the same—antic, bumbling, wise-cracking Woody Allen.
And instead he created some dramatic masterpieces, which will long be remembered after Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.. has faded into irrelevance.
Another Woman appeared in 1988. In the eleven years between Annie Hall (1977) and Another Woman, Allen had written and directed eleven films (and starred in eight of them) Two years earlier in 1986, he had had great success–both critically and with the public–with Hannah and Sisters.
However, there seemed to be a pattern with the public’s acceptance of these films at the time. Generally, fewer people went to his movies in which he did not act. (They needed their clown.) And the films in which he did not appear were usually his more serious work. Or at least, his “heavier” work. And thus, Another Woman failed to attract the audiences that most of his previous work had been garnering.
All of which is a shame, because Another Woman is a masterpiece.
Geena Rowlands plays Marion, chairman of the philosophy department, successful author, and a woman who believes she is better off not examining her own life and choices. (An odd choice in itself for a philosopher.) She is married to an eminent cardiologist and has a close relationship with his sixteen-year-old daughter from a previous marriage. He relationship with her brother, her father, and even with herself is not as close nor honest.
In order to write undisturbed, Marion rents an apartment. (New York cardiologists must do very well because Marion and his apartment is gorgeous, as is her “get-away” apartment where she writes. Apartment prices in NYC must have been quite cheaper in 1988 than they are today!)
The building has a quirk in the ventilation and unless she puts sofa cushions up against the ventilators, she can hear everything in the psychiatrist’s office next door. Which she soon begins to do purposefully. Removing the cushions, sends Marion down a rabbit-hole, a path which she is not sure she wants to pursue.
She becomes obsessed with one of the psychiatrist’s patients, a frail, pregnant, unhappy woman named Hope (Mia Farrow). From what she says, Hope is certainly unhappy, quite insecure and perhaps, even, suicidal. After a while, Hope’s overheard questioning of the choices she has made in life, leads Marion on a journey of her own self-discovery. And it is revelatory.
That Woody Allen reveres and has been influenced by the great European film-makers, especially of Ingmar Bergman is well known. (Ten years earlier in 1978 Allen made Interiors, a particular homage to the films of Bergman.) Another Woman is again inspired by Bergman, particularly his film Wild Strawberries. There are similarities in plot–the main characters must examine the coldness with which they have lived their lives–and technique–there are similar surreal dream sequences and scenes where the main characters are able to enter the scenes of their childhood.
And yet what makes Another Woman a masterpiece is not the bows to Bergman that Allen deftly offered, but the extraordinary performance he had engendered in Gena Rowlands. In several very long takes, the camera focuses on Rowlands’ face at different times as she listens to the patients next door. There is more emotional revelation in those moments than most actors can depict in an entire movie.
In fact, this quiet intensity seems startling compared to the Oscar-nominated performances she gave for her director husband, John Cassavetes. In films such as A Woman Under the Influence and Gloria, Rowlands exploded her emotions onto the screen. For Woody Allen, there is a intense quietness to her acting, an interiority that she allows us to see. And which draws us in to her pain and her self-examination.
The title Another Woman can be though of as referencing various things: Marion is the “other woman” for whom her husband left his wife; there is “another woman” with whom her husband is now involved; Hope is “another woman” whose analysis seems to be applicable to Marion; she has spurned passion in the past for comfort and security, and now “another woman” is enjoying the spark of that zest for life; and Marion herself is, at the end of the film, “another woman” than what she had earlier believed.
The Martians in Stardust Memories might have wanted funnier jokes, but with Another Woman they couldn’t have wanted a better film.