In which I try to write something original and insightful about ‘Husbands and Wives’ 20 years after its release

August 17, 2012

The 1992 comic drama Husbands and Wives opens in the Manhattan apartment of Gabe and Judy Roth (writer-director Woody Allen and Mia Farrow) shortly before they have dinner with another married couple, longtime friends Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis).

Things go off the rails almost immediately when Jack and Sally make an announcement. They are splitting, they say calmly. Gabe and Judy are astonished. How can this be after they have spent so much time together? What does this mean for the Roths’ own marriage?

Jack and Sally try to reassure them, saying that the decision is mutual and amicable, but the Roths have trouble accepting the change.

So do Jack and Sally once they start trying to deal with the practical realities of their divergent lives. With different degrees of enthusiasm, they take younger lovers.

Meanwhile, Judy appears to be conflicted at every turn. First she wants to make love to Gabe; then she doesn’t. One moment, she wants to conceive a child with him; then she gets cold feet. She suspects Gabe of flirting with his beautiful young writing students at Columbia University, but she seems to have no specific idea that her writer husband has developed a strikingly cozy relationship with Rain (Juliette Lewis).

And after some initial excitement, Judy comes to regret setting up Sally with her co-worker, Michael (an apple-cheeked Liam Neeson).

Allen provides a sort of Greek chorus for the movie in the form of Gabe’s novel in progress, which he lets Rain read. The book depicts human existence as eternally discontented; it’s a theme Allen has explored many times, including in the recent Midnight in Paris. The family man, bored and frustrated with his life, yearns for the amorous adventures of the single man and his many lovers, while the lonely bachelor envies the suburban bliss of his married counterpart.

Spoiler alert! I’m going to discuss the ending of Husbands and Wives in some detail, so skip down several paragraphs if you have any interest in letting developments in the movie surprise you.

The conclusion of the film is brutal. Jack and Sally reunite, but the passive-aggressive Sally’s manipulative ways have clearly beaten Jack into submission. He talks of the importance of growing old together, implicitly ruling out love and passion as reasons to stay married.

Jack seemed to have no trouble performing physically with his extramarital lover, an aerobics teacher named Sam (Lysette Anthony). But it’s hinted that he is impotent with Sally — and it is stated, rather more explicitly, that such issues shall be overlooked and ignored deliberately.

Judy is also passive-aggressive in her fashion; she frequently plays the victim but always seems to finish on top. She ousts Gabe and winds up rather aggressively consoling Michael once Sally ends their affair. Judy and Gabe sport the biggest smiles as Husbands and Wives draws to a close.

Gabe’s flirtation with his student, meanwhile, dances right up to the boundaries of propriety. Having received sobering warnings about Rain’s history of loving and abandoning older men, he initially declines her coquettish request for a kiss when the pair find themselves alone during her 21st birthday party. Then he reverses course and leans in for an intimate smooch. And then Gabe changes direction once again and tells her, decisively, that they can’t embark upon an affair.

Forget the novel’s parable about married men and bachelors envying one another’s existences; in this scene, the conflicted Gabe can barely even stick to a decision for more than a minute or two.

Ultimately, Gabe winds up alone and out of the dating game — at least for the moment. The interplay between him and Judy seems rather defensive, consciously or not, because the movie was released on the heels of Allen’s notorious break with Farrow; he left her for her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, whom Allen later married. (The matter recently drew renewed attention here. Incidentally, despite their many years together, Allen and Farrow never married.)

End spoilers.

I found two aspects of this film remarkable when I watched Husbands and Wives on DVD recently. (I have extremely vague memories of watching it upon its initial release.) One is that, just as the characters’ desires seem to shift from moment to moment, so does their appeal. Each of the four main players moves from likable to loathsome and (frequently) back again over the course of the picture. Cynical as the character-driven plot sometimes seemed, I loved these shifts because I find them so true of real life.

Let me digress briefly to highlight a sequence that really shook me during my recent viewing: The party at which Jack blows up at Sam. Despite his adultery, I had found Jack largely sympathetic to that point. I thoroughly understand his rage at Sam, who was humiliating herself and (by extension) Jack — but his expression of it was utterly demeaning, completely unacceptable.

This scene is followed closely by another, by turns uncomfortable and humorous, at Judy’s house. Like many of the other scenes, this puts beautiful performances by Pollack, Davis, Farrow and the rest of the cast to excellent use.

The other remarkable feature of Husbands and Wives is that it’s shot and edited like a modern-day reality show. Many scenes are filmed with a single handheld camera; the operator maneuvers from spot to spot in a room depending on what is happening, lending the proceedings a definite cinéma vérité feel.

Moreover, the present action is intercut with interviews conducted with the characters. (Jeffrey Kurland serves as the off-screen interviewer and narrator.) We get some incisive commentary from Judy’s first husband (Benno Schmidt) as well as postmortems from the four main players. I don’t know if it’s more apt to say that Allen foreshadowed or inspired present-day television, but the novel form of this movie brought the story freshness that it otherwise might have lacked.

That’s not to say that Husbands and Wives strictly follows the form of a faux documentary. Some of the footage we see come from past moments that no documentarian ever would have been able to film. (These include the party where Gabe met Judy a decade ago, plus an interview with a prostitute whom Jack covertly frequented, apparently unbeknownst to all of the other characters in the movie.)

It’s also hard, of course, to imagine accomplished middle-aged professionals in 1992 allowing film crews to record moments of postcoital intimacy, or even the post-party confrontation at Judy’s house.

And finally, the film also has a few scenes from Gabe’s novel, which no respectable documentary would ever stage.

For all these quibbles, the combination of the faux-documentary approach and the narrative itself lend Husbands and Wives an edge that has been missing from many recent Allen movies. If you want to see the film-maker in top form as a dramatist, you owe it to yourself to view this picture.

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