Each week in Eat Your Vegetables, Jonathan Sircy shares the benefit and appeal of some of the culture’s more inaccessible or intimidating artifacts.
Cultural Vegetable of the Week: Interiors (Woody Allen; 1978)
Vegetable Equivalent: A tuber, a vegetable that doesn’t require lots of sunlight
Nutritional Value: Exposing the idolization of art
Recommended Serving Size: In between two viewings of Allen’s comedic masterpiece Love and Death (1975)
Interiors (1978) is the meat of a Woody Allen sandwich that’s far more famous for its bread. In 1977, Allen directed the Oscar-sweeping Annie Hall. In 1979, he filmed the gorgeous Manhattan. Both of those films are regularly cited by his fans as his best work. Interiors was the stark drama he made in the middle, an overt homage to Allen’s much beloved Ingmar Bergman.
Its themes are stark and its characters cold. This is a particularly unfunny film. Diane Keaton (starring in her 4th consecutive Allen film) is miles from Annie Hall, the character that won her an Oscar. She plays Renata, the oldest of three sisters that include Joey (Marybeth Hurt) and Flyn (Kristen Griffith). Renata is a successful poet who has fallen into a debilitating bout of writer’s block. Joey bounces around jobs, tragically cursed with artistic feelings but with no accomplished way to express them. Flyn is the “pretty” sister we see the least of, an actress who has made a career out of television movies because no one thinks she’s substantial enough to act in real films.
The most important figure in these women’s lives is their mother, Eve (Geraldine Page). An exceedingly refined woman, Eve made a living as an interior decorator for the chic rich of New England. But there are cracks in her seemingly flawless facade. When her husband, Arthur (EG Marshall), seeks a divorce, Eve suffers a mental breakdown and tries to commit suicide. The film captures the ramifications of his decision to leave Eve and remarry.
The film’s dominant emotional motif is unrequited affection. Everyone wants the approval/affection of someone who will not reciprocate. Eve loves Renata. Renata wants the approval of her father, who prefers Joey. Joey, on the other hand, wants the approval her mother will only give to Renata.
None of the film’s initial romantic relationships are satisfying. Arthur divorces Eve. Renata has played Eve to her husband, Frederick, a frustrated writer who has quietly grown enchanted with Flyn. Mike (Sam Waterston) loves Joey and hates what Eve does to her emotionally, but Joey doesn’t seem to see anyone but her mother. It is only when Arthur meets the vivacious Pearl (Maureen Stapleton) that we see a couple who enjoy a spiritual as well as a sensual kinship.
These are essentially secular people. We see Eve and Arthur inside a church, but all Eve can comment on is the amazing Byzantine mosaics. Arthur and Pearl get married not in a sanctuary but in their home. No one looks for answers in religion, only art.
The early parts of the film are emotionally hard to take. The dialogue is overblown, the settings claustrophobic. No one provides the slap or glass of cold water to the face that these characters need. They remain cloistered in their little worlds, unable or unwilling to escape their own interiors.
In this sense, I think that Eve with her biblical name is Allen’s stand-in for God, a comment on how perfection — whether divine or human — can simply not be accommodated to this world. Eve loves the talented Renata when it is really the frustrated Joey, the one reliant on her mother’s affection, who needs Eve’s help. When Eve walks into the water at the film’s end, she makes way for the grounded Pearl, someone who believes “we only go around once.” Pearl, who wears bright colors and does not intellectualize everything, ends the film by giving Joey a second life and a new maternal figure.
The film’s conclusion is gorgeous, almost completely silent with Allen transitioning between interior and exterior shots flawlessly. Allen, an avowed atheist, makes a film that exposes the very real consequences of glorifying art as a replacement for God. Is it better to dance, drink, and dine then substitute an ersatz heaven of vases, poems, and portraits? Is it better to have no spirituality than its pretentious simulacrum?