Sunday 11 January 2015

Movie Review: An Unmarried Woman (1978)

A slice-of-life societal drama, An Unmarried Woman is a richly satisfying and yet intimate exploration of the new dynamics facing women at the end of a decade of upheaval.

In New York, art gallery curator Erica (Jill Clayburgh) believes that she is happily married to bank executive Martin (Michael Murphy). Their seemingly functional marriage has lasted for more than 15 years and produced teenager Patti (Lisa Lucas), who is now beginning to grapple with boy issues. But Martin unexpectedly reveals that he is having an affair with a younger woman and leaves, shocking Erica's existence.

She turns to her group of women friends to commiserate, and they offer conflicting advice. Erica starts to see psychiatrist Tanya (Penelope Russianoff), tentatively re-engages with men, and explores meaningless sexual encounters. She then meets artist Saul (Alan Bates), they start dating and their relationship evolves into something serious. But much as she may start to love him, Erica will need to decide if she can ever again dedicate her life to making a man happy.

Coming at the culmination of feminism and the sexual revolution, An Unmarried Woman captures a time and place rolling with the aftershocks of two social seismic events. Director and writer Paul Mazursky crafts a masterpiece of simplicity, the film a quiet study of a woman forced to learn the new rules of engagement after the rug of her life is pulled from under her.

Rarely has a film felt so normal. In the opening scenes Mazursky delves into the routine middle class existence of a wife, her husband and daughter as Erica contentedly grapples with the details of life in Manhattan. Work, marital sex, parenting, friendships, humour, arguments and exercise. There are hints of tension, but for the most part the film builds an enormous reservoir of sympathy for Erica because she is everywoman, having done all she can to build a happy life, and doing all she knows to carve out a career and be there for her family.

Once Martin drops his bombshell and leaves, the film maintains its emphasis on the real world. Erica goes through the stages of grief but never melodramatically. She awkwardly takes many missteps on the road to reasserting her life, and only gradually rediscovers her centre. In the context of a changed world where sex is more freely available and women's social stature has advanced beyond recognition, it is still a lonely place for an unmarried woman to navigate the new rules and rebuild a life independent of a husband.

An Unmarried Woman is a career highlight for Jill Clayburgh, as she throws herself into the role to find what makes a smart woman tick, crumble and recover. Clayburgh avoids heroism and tragedy, and nails the natural behaviour and emotions that operate within the bounds of every day habits. Erica never asked to be emotionally abandoned, but her growth will come from surviving and reengaging, stronger and wiser.

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