Directed By: Paul Mazursky
Written By: Paul Mazursky
Starring: Jill Clayburgh, Alan Bates, Michael Murphy, Cliff Gorman
Erica is so firmly entrenched in married life when we first meet her, that she’s unconscious of the co-dependence which defines her existence. She lives in Manhattan with, as is the norm with these sort of movies, her precocious adolescent daughter, and her stockbroker husband Martin (Michael Murphy), who she dutifully has sex with twice weekly. Often, she fills her days by bantering at restaurants with her 3 friends, one of whom has just enveloped herself in an affair with a 19-year-old boy.
Erica also fills her days by working part time at an art gallery, where she is pestered by a greasy, full-of-himself artist named Charlie (Cliff Gorman.) Charlie is promiscuous and is bemused by the fact that Erica has never seen the allure of having an affair, the joys of sleeping around in a sexually liberated, 1970s New York. Martin, however, does know the allure of having an affair. There is seldom an apparent chink in the armour that is Erica’s marriage when things go wrong. Martin is in love with a younger woman. One day he went into Bloomingdale’s to buy a shirt and came out with a mistress, suddenly rendering Erica a cuckold. “Is she a good lay?” This is the first thing Erica wants to know regarding her husband’s infidelity.
Depressed and freshly cynical about relationships and men, Erica seeks out a therapist, whose advice is essentially to go on more dates and have more sex. There is a sobered moment, where Erica seems to forget her train of thought and delve into a deeper introspection, Mazursky right there with her, looking to truly dig into his protagonist’s psychology. Suddenly Erica come to. “What was I saying?” she asks her therapist. “Sex” her therapist succinctly responds.
An Unmarried Woman, which Paul Muzursky both wrote and directed, is often labelled one of the decades spearheading feminist pictures, where a woman who has taken her own identity for granted after 17 years of marriage, is estranged from her husband, and rediscovers her own worth. She is an entire entity all on her own, not simply one half of a marriage equation. There is something to be said for the film’s feminism. The film’s climax, a conclusion which seemed all but determined before pen was ever put to paper, is handled thoughtfully and subversively. But there is a narrowness to Muzursky’s material which suggests the writer/director doesn’t have as much affection for Erica as he should, or, indeed, needs, if he is to empower her as fully as he’d like. Moments of great naturalism and wit and truth are undercut by gossipy preoccupations. Sex is a worthy theme for a film, a fundamental part of life, but the material’s tunnel vision towards it is eventually reductive. It diminishes fully dimensional characters to teenagers at a slumber party, and the complications of being a forty-something divorcee, to a singularity.
There are moments in An Unmarried Woman that are so well handled that we appear to have entered cinema verite, authentic and true as they are. There are conversations between Erica and her friends, and Erica and her therapist (played by Penelope Russianoff) which feel completely improvised and spontaneous.
The performances are strong. Jill Clayburgh, who plays Erica, brings a soulfulness to her character, a humanism that is lacking in a script that too seldom allows Erica to demonstrate her upside. Clayburgh gets to the heart of her character’s goodness with ease; think of the scene early in the film where Erica prances balletically around her high-rise apartment to Swan Lake, a charming snapshot of a lively personality. Alan Bates plays Saul, the expressionist artist who re-sweeps Erica off her feet late in the piece. He provides an inherent warmth and comfort; both performances, like the film at its best, are natural. The task for Erica is to resist forgetting her independence once again in the face of a man who has wooed her. Credit to the filmmaker for not himself falling head-over-heals for a schmaltzy movie romance. It’s in reflection upon these moments that one considers how interesting a film An Unmarried Woman may have been.
Pondering whether to surrender herself to the charms of Saul and follow him away to the beach for the summer, Erica weighs up the situation with her sensitive friend Elaine. “Do you know how rare a man like Saul is?” Elaine reasons, urging Erica to succumb to the romance. “He’s smart. He’s funny…is he good in bed?” I thought there may have been more salient points of discussion, given this is a film about emotional liberation. There in lays the problem. Mazursky has provided us with interesting characters, but gives them too little of interest to say.