Marion (Gena Rowlands) is a middle-aged scholar and author who rents a small apartment in downtown New York to work on her next novel. Marion is unaware that she is in audible range of a psychiatrist’s office next door. One afternoon she overhears a therapy session with a patient (Mia Farrow) who is married, pregnant and full of despair over the decisions she has made in her life.
Marion is immediately faced with her own regrets of unfulfilled passion, childlessness and gradually becomes aware of how she has created an emotional distance between herself and all those close to her through a series of timely revelations with her family, husband and childhood friends to follow.
Allen has Marion walk back through her memories, much like he himself did in Annie Hall, trying to retroactively console those who her were close to her, in order to give herself peace. Rowlands and actresses playing her younger selves change places out of frame, as she struggles with the reality of re-engaging with Marion’s memories. At the centre of the film is an astonishing dream sequence within which Marion’s lovers and close family members feature in a play on a dark stage with only herself as the audience and set to Erik Satie’s devastating Gymnodpédie No. 3. The supporting cast are phenomenal with Ian Holm as Marion’s husband – even more withdrawn than she is – Gene Hackman as the man who loved her, Farrow as the delicate and vulnerable, Hope and Philip Bosco, who only features in two scenes, as Marion’s first husband, Sam.
Marion is one of Allen’s great tragic heroines but she is made more tragic by Rowlands’ repressed and emotionless portrayal of her. It is unusual to see the woman – who has lived more emotional extremes than any actresses could ever hope to – in such an evenly tempered, unromantic role. It is shattering – and the great success of Allen’s beautiful script.
The way in which art and life converge by coincidence or accident to teach us about ourselves is something Allen is always wrestling with. In Marion, Allen has found a vessel for himself, remarking once that she was the character who was closest to him intellectually. Though she is finally given some peace in the final moments of the film, passion remains vacant in her life, which both inspires us seize it, and also keeps us from being able to watch the film over and over.