New York

Woody Allen, September

Woody Allen is perhaps the most important filmmaker currently working in the English language, a true auteur. Unlike so many of his American colleagues, he is not interested in big budgets, all-star casts, or high-tech special effects. His films are ultimately highly personal statements about life, death, love, and relationships. Like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini, his spiritual mentors, Allen has devoted much of the past 20 years to creating a rich visual landscape with a team of technicians and actors and a strong repertory of characters, concerns, plots, and themes.

Allen’s films generally fall within two different though not disparate categories: madcap parody and the more serious personal film. In its own vacuous way, September is both. Set in the dark reaches of a Chekhovian country house in the final days of summer, the film is about domestic turmoil, familial resentments, and the emotional hold of childhood. At the film’s core is Lane, a distraught young woman recovering from a failed suicide attempt. Portraying this victim of a traumatic childhood at the hands of a brazen, alcoholic mother, Mia Farrow plays Lane as if she were making up her lines as an afterthought. With each passing scene, we see Lane’s life get away from her. As she encounters her mother, her best friend, her stepfather, her suitor, and the man she thinks she loves, we sense the tenuous state of her psyche. Allen seems to see her as the eternal victim, a springboard for other people’s actions. Unfortunately, the character is so overwrought and overwritten that it is impossible to react to her or feel for her. As distanced as Lane is from herself, she is dead for us. Her every gesture and move are completely false; in that respect, she is no different from everyone else in September. Like a group of film actors trapped in a theater set, Allen’s cast appears to be rehearsing rather than acting their roles.

September often touches on some crucial matters of the heart and mind, including the fragility of relationships and the suffocating effects of affection, but, about halfway through, the screenplay gets so muddled that it is impossible to locate any of these issues. Because of the way Allen has structured his script, we see everything and everybody from Lane’s disturbed point of view. As one of Allen’s imperfect beautiful creatures, Lane’s eyes point fingers all over the place.

The September that we see is in fact the second version of an already completed film. After finishing the first, Allen made several cast changes, shifted certain actors from one role to another, and then made his film again. He is perhaps bemoaning the false nature of his art form, or presenting us with a film full of concepts. In any case, September is most valid as a desktop reference book to Allen’s oeuvre: it seems to contain every gesture, reference, scene, character, movement, and glance from a slew of earlier Allen films. There was a time when his project as a filmmaker alluded to the remaking of the history of postwar Western cinema. Now its focus appears to have shifted to the remaking of the history of his own cinema.

September is a film in a bottle. How any of its parts got there is a mystery, and the mystery is apparently the point. Allen is attempting to convey something, but what that something is is anyone’s guess. Like an overlong lesson in phonetics, the words lose all meaning and become abstractions for larger meanings and emotions. To comprehend September it might be necessary to remove the film’s soundtrack and watch the actors move around one another and stake their ground. Even after two attempts, this supposedly finished film seems embryonic. Allen has talked of filming it a third time. Perhaps the responsibility for the completion of this project lies with the audience. Reality and illusion become one in September, an ultimately failed attempt at communication.

Christian Leigh