Another Woman

December 7, 2011

Yes, the latest Woody Allen movie is one of his serious outings. No, it’s not as pregnant with (to use on old Allenism) heaviosity as Woody’s previous film, September. In fact, the new one, Another Woman, goes a long way toward erasing the memory of the studied, constricted seriousness of September.

Another Woman is narrated by its main character, a historian, Marion (Gena Rowlands), who is on sabbatical from her teaching position to write a new book. She takes a writing office in downtown Manhattan, which happens to be next door to a psychiatrist’s office. As the walls are thin, she can overhear voices, and one afternoon she begins to listen to the story of a profoundly unhappy woman (Mia Farrow).

This causes Marion to reflect on her own life, which, the more she examines it, turns out to be rife with disappointment. This is a fascinating, and as it turns out, quite beautiful narrative device; at one point Marion actually runs into the unhappy patient and buys her supper, which leads to an important discovery. And, throughout, Marion’s narration on the soundtrack is like her own voice coming from the analyst’s couch, available for us to overhear.

Allen skips around in time, to show us Marion’s life as a promising child, her affair as a college student with a professor (Philip Bosco), a chance encounter with an old friend (Sandy Dennis) who brings up some unpleasant memories, and even into a fantasy sequence in which Marion plays scenes from her life on a stage.

At the center of her ruminations is her affair with a writer (Gene Hackman), which happened just before she entered into marriage with a detached and emotionally arid man (Ian Holm). The Hackman character represents the one great regret of her past, a promise of a life richer than the one she is living now. (He is in only three or four scenes, else Gene Hackman’s superb, heartbreaking performance would be an Oscar winner.)

Except for Hackman, and Holm’s teenage daughter, played by Martha Plimpton, the characters in Another Woman wander through an emotional desert, emphasized by the sameness of Santo Loquasto’s production design; everything is in dry shades of beige and khaki.

The film was photographed by Ingmar Bergman’s cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, and Allen has been accused of borrowing some of his ambitions and themes from Bergman’s films. In the New Republic, Stanley Kauffman actually called it plagiarism. That’s a bit much, but I do think that Another Woman is a bit shy (at less than 90 minutes) on background and detail; Allen asks us to accept a lot of faith. He frequently has his characters tell us his themes, rather than letting them emerge through action and behavior.

But no other American director is making movies quite like Woody Allen’s these days, movies that are deliberately about the way intelligent, thinking people talk and act, about the way they find each other and betray each other and love each other. Another Woman is not his best, but it has moments that are as tender as anything seen this year.

First published in the Herald, November 27, 1988

Another draft of this and Allen might have had an absolute gem instead of a very good picture. There are a handful of Woodys that are flawed but good enough to bear repeat viewing, which provide an opportunity to say: this is why Allen is a good director, and this is how he falls short of the next rung. Another Woman is one of those.