on 2 March 2006
September seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it work within the Allen filmography, one that seems synonymous with that period in the late 80's when he was trying to take on weightier issues that drew stylistically on the films of Ingmar Bergman (see Another Woman, Husbands and Wives, Crimes and Misdemeanours and elements of Hannah and Her Sisters for more), and one that has the famous back-story of Allen shooting the film once, assembling a rough-cut, deciding he hated it, re-writing the script, re-casting the film and eventually re-shooting the same story on a soundstage in upstate New York. His intention... to create an isolated and claustrophobic atmosphere in which he could develop a modern-day chamber-piece that would stand more as a filmed play as opposed to a major motion picture!! Still, it showed that he was taking risks rather than playing it safe, something that he would end up doing during the latter half of the 90's and the first half of the new millennium.
The basic story of the film concerns six main protagonists who are gathered together at an idyllic summer house in Vermont. The house belongs to Lane (Farrow), who is recuperating from a nervous breakdown, a failed relationship and years of guilt and speculation involving the murder of her abusive step-father. Amongst the group is Peter (Sam Waterston), a struggling writer who is lodging with Lane and who Lane has a crush on. Peter however, is in love with Lane's friend Stephanie (Diane Wiest), who is staying at the summer house to escape the tedium of her husband while her children are away at camp. Stephanie seems close to Howard (Denholm Eliot) who has hidden feelings from Lane, whilst between the four of them there is Lane's vibrant and gregarious mother Diane (Elaine Stritch) and her new lover Lloyd (Jack Warden). The set-up seems ripe for the kind of comedic misunderstandings usually found in the greatest of French farce (or even Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night!!), but instead, Allen uses the notion of couples "in love with someone, in love with someone else" to mine deeper questions involving the need for love, understanding and acceptance in the face of loneliness and isolation.
Throughout the film we never stray from the stifling claustrophobia of the summer house, with Allen carefully cutting backwards and forwards between the main characters and their escalating interactions that can only lead to a scene of devastating emotional fall out!! As a result, September is a purposely stagy film that relies heavily on scenes of dialog punctuated by moments of piercing silence. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, then the film most certainly isn't for you, with Allen and long-term cinematographer Carlo Di Palma shooting much of the film in long, unbroken takes, with very few close-ups (the obvious exception being the closing scenes of dysfunction), and generally allowing scenes to play out in semi-darkened rooms lit by candle-light or very low sepia bulbs. The feeling that this creates is one of mystery and desperation, offering many secluded areas for the group to break away and take solace in their secrets, whilst also going to some lengths to visualise the deep-seated animosity that lies at the heart of the film's central characters.
The film could easily be seen as the middle-part of Allen's dramatic trilogy, which began with the very bleak Interiors in 1978 and climaxed with the very bleak but wholly more interesting Another Woman from 1987. On the whole, September is a more enjoyable film than Interiors (if it is possible to enjoy such a bleak and miserable film), though for me lacked the depth of further interpretation that was so central to Another Woman. The story can at times be a little slow, despite the film clocking in at just under an hour and twenty-minutes, but it is worth sticking with as far as I'm concerned, particularly for the great performances and that jaw-dropping moment towards the end of the film, in which the root of Lane's problems and the deep-seated animosity towards her mother is finally revealed.
The performances are fine throughout, though it is Farrow (in possibly her best performance ever... alongside The Purple Rose of Cairo) and Wiest who really stand out as something spectacular. It's a film that I particularly enjoy (though I'm someone who can overlook the flaws in Shadows and Fog and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion to see the great work lurking beneath), and I feel it shows Allen's deft understanding of character, atmosphere, design and direction in pulling off such a dour and depressing piece of work. Although it could be argued that the subsequent Crimes and Misdemeanours and Husbands and Wives were also fairly dark and dramatic films, they were undercut by Allen's verbal wit and enough moments of lighter comedy. Interiors, September and Another Woman are films without laughs and devoid of the usual Allen wit... with the director instead choosing to ask deeper questions about life, love and loneliness. The characters here are forced to dig through the secrets of the past (and the present), whilst at the same time, staring life full in the face, in order to get to the root of their various problems and complications, but ultimately find a (slim) glimmer of hope drifting far on the horizon.
As with 90% of Allen's work, September is a perfectly made film with an interesting story, strong characters and an impeccable design. Though it perhaps tries too hard to develop its overtly serious tone, it should be commended for trying to do something stylistically different, whilst simultaneously offering us a film for adults about adults, that isn't afraid to present the darker aspects of life. It may fall somewhat outside the top-ten of Allen-related masterworks, but regardless, it is well made, impeccably acted and occasionally quite moving, and deserves to find an audience that is willing to invest some time in it.