"It's not really about survival. It's about everything."—Peter (Sam Waterston)
Woody Allen takes a break between sprawling existential dramas for a claustrophobic character study.
Facts of the Case
Trapped within the walls of her Vermont cottage, Lane (Mia Farrow) has survived a long physical illness, and an even longer psychological one. As she prepares for her return to New York, she dotes on Peter (Sam Waterston), an ad writer turned aspiring novelist. Peter, who is unsure that his novel is even worth finishing, cannot return Lane's affection: he is in love with Lane's best friend Stephanie (Dianne Wiest). But Stephanie is married and unsure of her attraction to Peter.
As complicated as these present relationships are, they pale before Lane's traumatic past, and the tension she feels toward her mother Diane (Elaine Stritch). Diane's wild youth is the source of much amusement for both Peter and her current husband Lloyd (Jack Warden), but a dark secret exists between her and Lane. And in one very long day, these characters are about to enter the autumn of their lives with an oppressive weight on their shoulders.
If you recall our discussion in an earlier Deep Focus column on Woody Allen, the mid-to-late 1980s were Allen's "Bergman" phase, in which he worked over in meticulous detail the conjunctions between character psychology and the problem of history. After the ambitious Radio Days, Allen decided to attempt a closet drama in a style reminiscent of Ibsen. The result is September. Three key elements mark this film as a departure from Allen's usual style:
The setting: Allen restricts himself to a single set (the cottage), never venturing outside at any point (even the brief porch scenes take place in darkness). This in part creates the feel of a stage play (and the paced and deliberate performances of the small cast enhance this), only livened up by camera movement. Warm tones of late summer float into the rooms through shuttered windows, signs of a world where the characters have missed the frolic of summer and are now preparing to enter a bleak autumn. This enclosed space also generates claustrophobia, well suited to the closeted lives of Lane and her friends. Only Lane's mother has ever seemed to escape the confines of an interior existence. But Diane's famous dalliance with a gangster during Lane's childhood ended in disaster: a history of abuse and murder from which Lane has never psychologically recovered.
The characters: As a result of the damage Diane has caused, Lane has spent the rest of her life in retreat, and is only now coming to realize how much she has become an emotional cripple. But is Lane's withdrawal Diane's fault, or did Lane choose this on her own? Many of the characters in Allen's film are afraid to step outside into the world, and their humorless, arid lives again seem more suited to an Ibsen psychodrama then Allen's usual cinema territory. Allen's use of dialogue is spare and precise (again, similar to a stage play), and he allows the camera to linger to take in the thought process of each character.
The tone: While Allen has shown himself as adept at dramas as at comedies (a fact which we noted in the aforementioned Deep Focus column), September may be one of his driest films, showing none of the stylistic flourishes he would employ in Hannah and Her Sisters or Crimes and Misdemeanors, both of which mark high points of his "Bergmanesque" phase. Although arguably, September is as experimental as Allen's more visually radical films of recent years: the shift to a closet drama format requires him to focus on character development and tiny details of dialogue in order to carry the effect of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
That having been noted, I must rank September as a relative failure from Woody Allen. The angst voiced by the characters differs little from his other films (self-doubt over creative potential, unrequited romantic longings, envy over a family member's success), but when boiled down in such an experiment in minimalism, placed under such microscopic scrutiny, the character interactions become stiff, as if confrontations must be timed out for dramatic effect. Ibsen's plays (and Bergman's films) always balance these progressively revealed layers of psychological trauma by heightening reality through narrative trickery (overt symbolism, exposing the narrative process, and so on). Allen has stripped down the drama perhaps too much, and the result is the audience feeling trapped in a house with a bunch of people we just want to slap some sense into.
I also want to slap some sense into MGM. Even if September is a weak effort, it still deserves better attention than has been paid here. Yes, I know Woody Allen has an aversion to DVD, but apart from some information on the insert and a full-frame theatrical trailer that says absolutely nothing about the movie (other than listing the cast), there are no extras. And although French and Spanish subtitles (and dubs) are provided, there are no English subtitles.
The video is serviceable, free of major defects, but there is a noticeable graininess to it. The soundtrack appears in mono only, but since Allen uses almost no incidental music (just a few old jazz pieces as always) and the action is trapped within the confines of the house, there is little need for a wide field of sound.
It might seem unfair to simply dismiss September as a lesser effort from Woody Allen, but it really does cover too much material handled more effectively in other Allen films. Woody Allen fans will want to give it a look to compare it with his other films, but casual viewers may find September less than the sum of its parts.
The court withholds judgment against Woody Allen on the grounds that this film is merely one small part of a remarkable body of work. MGM is fined for the lack of supplemental materials and admonished to provide English subtitling for all its films.
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