Bright Lights Film Journal

Mia of the Spirits: Woody Allen’s Alice (1990)

Alice isn’t all high-concept reverie and mystical melancholy. After a series of self-consciously arthouse films and sombre homages – and bookended between Another Woman and Crimes and Misdemeanours on the one hand, and Shadows and Fog and Husbands and Wives on the other – this is a return to the more anarchic tendencies of Allen’s earliest films as well.

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Giulietta Masina in Juliet of the Spirits

We don’t hear a great deal about Woody Allen’s Alice these days. In part, that’s because Allen’s filmography has grown so voluminous in its late stage that only the most canonical of his earlier works still feel as if they are within living memory. Yet it’s also because Alice is one of the most restrained of Allen’s films of the ’80s and early ’90s. Refraining from the ambitious philosophical disquisitions of Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and her Sisters, the extravagant metafictional excursions of Stardust Memories and The Purple Rose of Cairo and the neo-screwball of Manhattan Murder Mystery and Husbands and Wives, it belongs – nominally – with Allen’s pastiches and homages to classical cinema and European culture, since it is a loose reworking of Federico Fellini’s 1965 film Juliet of the Spirits, which starred Fellini’s wife Giulietta Masina just as Alice stars Allen’s then-wife, Mia Farrow, in the leading role. Yet Alice feels like a departure from Allen’s long strain of homages as much as a culmination of them – the contrast with Shadows and Fog, his tribute to German Expressionism released the following year, couldn’t be clearer – since this doesn’t play as a way for Allen to claim a particular artistic lineage nor as a strategy for emphasising his own artistic credibility and cultural capital. Instead, Alice is probably the loosest and most provisional of all his homages, a tribute to Farrow – as wife, muse and actress – that just happens to light upon Fellini as the best point of reference.

In other words, this is as much Allen’s film as Fellini’s film, and while the plot may loosely follow that of Giulietta of the Spirits – a wandering housewife searching for meaning in a privileged existence – the details and small touches are all Allen’s own. As the title might suggest, Farrow plays Alice Tate, an Upper East Side housewife who finds herself increasingly alienated from her husband, Doug (William Hurt), as well as increasingly drawn to Joe Ruffalo (Joe Mantegna), a parent at her children’s school who has separated from his wife Vicki (Judy Davis) and finds Alice just as beguiling as she finds him. In order to gain some clarity and find some meaning in her life, Alice enlists the help of a Chinatown doctor, who treats her with hypnotherapy and provides her with herbs that render her invisible, setting off a string of screwy scenarios that feel more indebted to Allen’s earlier, physical, slapstick comedy than any of his other films of the ’80s or ’90s. In the process, Alice tries to set up a screenplay deal with an old friend (Cybill Shepherd) now working in network television, receives some life lessons and a flight across Manhattan from the ghost of an old lover (Alec Baldwin), and even has a visit from her muse (Bernadette Peters), who helps her to to discover her writing voice, although this isn’t exactly a story about an artist coming of age so much as a woman discovering her purpose in life.

On paper, that might sound like a somewhat frenzied ensemble experience, but in reality this feels less like an ensemble film than any of Allen’s big-cast features from around this time. In part, that’s because of how inextricable Alice is from the Upper East Side, which cements and congeals all the disparate threads into a single Felliniesque texture, set against boutiques, top-floor apartments, and high-end fashion outlets. While this part of Manhattan has always been the foundation of Allen’s world, there are few of his films in which the decadence of the Upper East Side is so front and centre as the main character, nor in which there is such a sensitive attentiveness to the minutiae of space, atmosphere, and habitus. Beautifully shot and framed, with an intuitive taste for the sightlines and correspondences to be found within the city – “a whole new world of harmonics,” as one character puts it – the film is suffused with an ambling momentum that feels at once utterly indebted to Fellini and utterly Allen’s own. Rewatching it, I was reminded of how often this taste for cinematic texture appears to be missing from his later films, as well as how often that absence corresponds with Allen’s movement away from New York as backdrop, even as he has compensated with self-conscious city films along the lines of Midnight in Paris or To Rome with Love.

Alice and Joe

If the Upper East Side is the main character in the film, it’s only because of how brilliantly it is personified by Farrow, who transforms Alice into a one-woman show. While Allen may have provided her with more iconic performances, Farrow was never more radiant or ethereal than she is in this film, which effectively functions as her Annie Hall. And, just as Annie Hall is still the definitive tribute to Allen’s relationship with Diane Keaton, so it is the relationship between Allen and Farrow that is foregrounded here, a fact that is all the more noticeable as Allen is not actually in the film. Whenever Allen is absent from one of his films, he usually provides us with an Allen surrogate, and in this case Farrow plays that role. Yet as his wife, she manages to channel his delivery so perfectly and uncannily that it quickly feels as if she is playing herself and him at the same time, two actors in one, which is perhaps why the film seems to speak to their relationship, and their personal and professional proximity, more emphatically than in any of the features in which they actually play a couple. Indeed, in the first hypnosis scene, Alice has to speak to her husband as if he is actually there in the room with her, conjuring him up in much the same way that Farrow conjures up Allen’s presence by virtue of her very presence, to the point where I found myself wondering how much of Allen’s unique diction might have in fact been inflected through Farrow’s own voice. At its best, Allen’s voice is a self-sustaining entity, independent of him as a fixation becomes independent of the mind that produces it, and there is something paradoxical about the way in which Farrow is collapsed into that voice here, as Allen gives her the limited freedom to ruminate within his own diction, in what often plays as a kind of semi-ventriloquism.

It’s no surprise, then, that Alice – and Alice – unfold in a mild trance, a state of semi-hypnosis that moves in and out of dream-tableaux, in and out of classical and contemporary cinematic space, with the deftness of so many of Allen’s films of this period, with the hallucination sequences recalling The Purple Rose of Cairo in particular. At same time, the insular fixation on Farrow’s voice – and the fusion of Farrow and Allen’s voice – imbues the film with a novelistic, first-person narrator effect; in that sense, it is arguably the film in which Allen comes closest to realizing the literary aspirations of so much of his work. At one point, as part of her screenwriting ambitions, Alice visits a seminar in which she is asked to distinguish between the two key forms of dialogue – “internal and meditative in the novel, external and expressive in the film” – and yet Alice itself seems to split the difference between these two types of dialogue, with some of the best scenes revolving around Allen’s ability to draw out the cloistered spaces that can subsist in the midst of even the most extroverted Upper East Side gatherings.

With Dr. Yang

For all those reasons, the central spectacle of the film is probably the invisibility potion that Alice is prescribed by her doctor, which she first takes alone and then with Joe, once they become lovers. This leads to two basic scenarios – Alice eavesdropping and reflecting on friends and family unawares, and Alice conducting conversations while invisible – that see a good third of the film driven by voices – first Alice’s, then both Alice and Joe’s – percolating out across empty space. Add to that the various ghosts and spirits that appear and speak across the mise-en-scene and Allen’s voice feels as if it is haunting the film at every turn, dissociated from his own agency in much the same way as most of the main characters are progressively dissociated from their own voices. The result is to imbue the dialogue with a jazzy sense of both melancholy and spontaneity, insofar as a certain kind of jazz can carve out the emptiness of the space within which it is performed and a certain kind of jazz combination can work more to texture the silences between the instruments as much as to showcase the instruments themselves. In doing so, these sequences also culminate the luminous sense of presence so characteristic of the film as a whole, collapsing and folding Farrow’s incredulous ruminations back into the texture of the city, as if in a comic and irreverent riff on the iconic voice-over that commences Manhattan.

In that sense, Alice is probably also the film in which Allen most successfully makes use of magic and the supernatural, partly because magic frequently seems like a mere byproduct of the intensified urbanity that comes with living in Manhattan. In a wonderful sequence, Farrow and the ghost of her ex-boyfriend sail over the island in the middle of the night, in one of the most beautiful and unaffected of all Allen’s tributes to the silent era, as well as a clear inspiration for the magical dance sequence between Allen and Goldie Hawn that concludes Everyone Says I Love You. More distantly, Alice often seems to foreshadow Magic in the Moonlight, which I consider one of Allen’s most successful and evocative late endeavours, just because of the way in which it breaks with his increasingly self-referential dialogue to focus on the luminous potentiality of magical voices flung out across deceptively empty spaces, as occurs here as well.

Alice in Chinatown

Nevertheless, Alice isn’t all high-concept reverie and mystical melancholy. After a series of self-consciously arthouse films and sombre homages – and bookended between Another Woman and Crimes and Misdemeanours on the one hand, and Shadows and Fog and Husbands and Wives on the other – this is a return to the more anarchic tendencies of Allen’s earliest films as well. More specifically, it is a return to the Orientalism that initially announced his affiliation with B-movies and low culture – the working title was The Magical Herbs of Dr. Yang – as Allen mines a wealth of cheesy stereotypes that wouldn’t enter his work again until The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, and even then without quite the same relish as is demonstrated here. Key to that Orientalism is Allen’s enduring affection for Chinatown, which functions here as something of an old-fashioned limit to how far south a peraumblating Upper East Side native might venture. While all of his films of this period have a keen taste for the texture of New York, and particularly those grimy areas that are just on the verge of gentrification, Alice sets Canal Street as limit – if a receding limit – more emphatically than any of his films before or since, imbuing Alice’s movements up and down the island with a perfectly pitched absurdity that takes the edge off any residual pretension.

All of which paves the way for one of the strangest and freshest conclusions to any of Allen’s films, as Alice liberates herself by divorcing her husband, going to India to work with Mother Teresa, and then – even more strangely for an Allen film – moving downtown to work with disadvantaged youths. In many ways, India is less alien to Allen’s world than this final version of New York – loft apartments, baggy clothing, street life, ’90s youth culture in all its incipient glory – and in the strangest way it feels as if Allen is providing Farrow with a fleeting, effervescent line of flight out of his cinematic and personal world. Of course, it’s always questionable to read a text too closely in terms of the personalities of director and star, but in the light of the breakdown of Allen and Farrow’s marriage and the entire mythology that surrounds it I have always thought of these last few moments of Alice as a kind of concession or gift on Allen’s part, although of what, exactly, it is difficult to fully say. What I can say is that there is something peculiarly resonant and romantic about this conclusion – and this film – that sets it apart in Allen’s canon, and that makes it extraordinarily rewarding to rewatch and resavour. Now that every Allen film is presented as something of an event of ensemble casting, there is something refreshing about reminding yourself that he was capable of making beautiful films focused on a single actor or character, and Alice is certainly both of those things, as well as being one of the most moving collaborations between a director and his muse ever committed to the big screen.