Husbands and Wives

Irrational Man, now in limited release, is the forty-sixth film directed by Woody Allen.  In the last few years he has not only kept up his film-a-year output but he’s also been the subject of an acclaimed PBS documentary, has starred opposite John Turturo in Fading Giglio and wrote the book to an (ultimately unsuccessful) stage musical based on his film Bullets Over Broadway.  Allen is already in pre-production on his forty-seventh film and is also working on a television series for Amazon.  Clearly, age has not withered the Woodman.

On the other hand, Allen received some very unwanted publicity last year when his daughter, Dylan Farrow, wrote an editorial for The New York Times criticizing the Golden Globes for honoring her father and also criticizing many of the actresses who have appeared in his films (Diane Keaton, Scarlett Johansen, Cate Blanchett) for working with Allen.

As you no doubt remember, Woody Allen’s intensely private life was suddenly blown open and put on public display when it was learned that Allen was having an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the daughter of Allen’s longtime lover and co-star Mia Farrow.  Allen insisted that he was never a father figure to Previn, who was of legal age and that he and Farrow were no longer romantically involved.  Allen and Previn later married, had two children and are still together.  Still, when the scandal broke in 1992 many people felt that Allen had broken a major taboo and in the minds of many became a pariah.  Things got even uglier when Farrow accused Allen of sexually abusing their adopted daughter Dylan.  A police investigation took ensued, which included Allen taking and passing a lie-detector test.  No criminal charges were ever filed against Allen, though he was denied custody and visitation rights with his children.

The point of this article is not to argue the guilt or innocence of Mr. Allen or the rationality of Ms. Farrow.  Whatever you believed happened, or didn’t happen, is up to you.  What I do want to discuss is Husbands and Wives, the film that Allen and Farrow were working on when the scandal broke.  When released in 1992 it was appreciated by critics, although it was impossible for them to analyze the film without  drawing comparisons with what was happening in Allen’s personal life.  Today I feel that with twenty-three years of distance, Husbands and Wives is a film you should see.  It’s not only one of Allen’s best films, it’s one of the best films ever made about the subject of marriage.

In the film, Allen and Farrow play an Upper West Side married couple named Gabe and Judy.  He’s a literary professor at Columbia, she’s a book editor.  They prepare to have dinner with Sally and Jack (Judy Davis and fellow film-director, the late Sydney Pollock), another married couple who live in Riverdale.  When they show up they announce rather casually that they’re splitting up.  This obviously comes as a surprise, particularly to Judy, who actually seems hurt by the news.  After dinner, Gabe and Judy return to home and decide to make love, not because they’re in an amorous mood but more as a gesture to prove to themselves that their own marriage is solid.  This leads to one of the most hilariously unromantic moments in movie history when their plans for coitus are ruined when they get into an argument over using a diaphragm.

As things progress, we learn that Jack has been cheating on his wife for some time, alternating between two different call-girls.  He later hooks up with a flighty aerobics instructor who’s young enough to be his daughter (Lysette Anthony).  When Gabe and Judy meet her, they assume, with some justification, that she’s a floozy.  Jack goes on about how he’s in love with her and that she makes him feel much younger.  Of course this is just his lobito talking.

Meanwhile, Judy sets Sally up with a co-worker from her publishing house (Liam Neeson).  The two of them start dating, but the truth is that Judy has been attracted to him for some time.  In one of the films funniest scenes, Jack returns to the house in Riverdale while Sally is sleeping with Neeson (and not really enjoying it) after his girlfriend embarrasses him at a party.  He confesses that he still loves Judy, even though his girlfriend later walks in after waiting in the car for too long.

Gabe meanwhile begins a flirtation with one of his students (Juliette Lewis).  She has a long history of dating older men.  She’s very bright and sassy and genuinely admires Gabe.  He too begins to have doubts about his marriage.

All of this causes tension for Gabe and Judy, which culminates with the last scene that Allen and Farrow ever appeared in together (and in all likelihood ever will).  The two of them come sit on a couch, discuss the high points of their marriage, then come to the realization that they don’t love each other anymore.  This is not a big dramatic scene like something out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  It’s rather just the quiet, true to life moment when two people realize that their marriage has no where else to go.

Allen is of course a huge admirer of the great Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, and Husbands and Wives owes quite a bit to Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage.  The latter is a good film to be sure, but also a bit trying in that it’s little more than a filmed play (Bergman later did adapt the film for the stage) and can be a bit dour, great performances by Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson not withstanding.  Yet Allen’s film, in my opinion at least, is more enjoyable because while it captures the heartache that can come from being married, it also sees the humor that can arise from matrimony and infidelity.

Allen claims that “I’ve always wanted to make a movie without any of the niceties of filmmaking”.  In other words, rather than striving for beautiful cinematography and seamless camera movement and editing, Allen wanted to make a film in the rough style of directors like John Cassavetes, to not just remove the fourth wall but to re-erect it behind us so that we’re right in on the action.  Allen takes this a step further by turning Husbands and Wives into a faux documentary.  The entire film is handheld, the cuts are rough and intentionally jumpy, and most of the scenes were shot with whatever available light there was on location.

This style of directing has become pretty common, especially on television shows like Modern Family, Parks and Recreations and especially The Office.  Frankly, I’m not a fan of these shows (the latter I cannot abide), partly because the technique calls attention to itself.  There are times when that is justified, particularly in movies like Ferris Buellers Day Off when he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera directly, or The Blair Witch Project, which is intentionally supposed to be found footage shot by amateurs.

Because Allen makes this film look like a documentary in progress, with noise from the film crew and the occasional interview questions asked, we get the feeling that we’re intruding on people’s lives.  Some found the technique unnerving.  Others found the shaky camera work to be nauseating.  A year later Allen tried the approach again with Manhattan Murder Mystery and it backfired.  As the great architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said, form follows function.

It would be easy to pigeonhole Husbands and Wives as being anti-marriage, especially with the drama that was unfolding at the time of the films release.  But I don’t think it is.  There’s a brief but important exchange between Blythe Danner and Brian McConnachie, who play Juliette Lewis’ parents.  They note that their thirtieth anniversary is coming up, how happy the past thirty years have been and how they’re looking forward to old age together.

Woody Allen’s films have always played to relatively small audiences, though some of his recent films such as Match Point, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine have helped bring some of Allen’s past enthusiasts back into his orbit while winning over some new converts.  If either one true of you then you should definitely give this movie a whirl.