Never has a Woody Allen movie aroused as much craven curiosity and abject anticipation as Husbands and Wives. As it turns out, the movie, featured at this week’s Festival of Festivals in Toronto, is wonderful—funny, sad, witty and wise. It is also more raw, more intimate and more breathtakingly candid than anything Allen has directed in his remarkable career of 22 films. In light of recent events, however, it is impossible to take Husbands and Wives at face value—to watch it without being reminded of how closely, and cruelly, life and art seem to have mimicked each other. Allen and Mia Farrow play a couple whose marriage flies apart as his character becomes infatuated with a 20-year-old. The parallels to Allen’s own rift with Farrow over his romance with her adopted daugher Soon-Yi are downright eerie. But the movie is so strong that, while it may not vindicate Allen, it certainly reaffirms his reputation as an outstanding film-maker.
Husbands and Wives measures up to his best work. It is a complex relationship comedy on the scale of Manhattan (1979) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). As in Manhattan, Allen’s character becomes obsessed with a girl young enough to be his daughter. But Husbands and Wives offers more maturity and insight. It also marks Allen’s most successful attempt to integrate comedy with drama.
The story revolves around two floundering marriages. And in both cases, the husbands become enchanted with much younger women. In the opening scene, Gabe (Allen) and Judy (Farrow) are mortified when their friends Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) blithely announce that they are splitting up. At first it looks like a highly civilized separation, a sensible solution to a sexless marriage. Sally looks forward to her independence. But her equanimity soon dissolves when she learns that Jack has already found a carnal cure for his mid-life crisis with Sam (Lysette Anthony), a coltish aerobics instructor.
Gabe, an English professor, flirts with a less overt form of betrayal. He cultivates a friendship with an adoring female student named Rain (Juliette Lewis), who turns out to have a predilection for older men. For most of the movie, Gabe never even admits that their relationship might have a sexual component. He admires her writing. She admires his mind. They go for long walks. His wife, meanwhile, is getting impatient with their stalled, childless marriage. And she has her eye on Michael (Liam Neeson), an office colleague—but she has already set him up with Sally.
The narrative has a symmetry reminiscent of Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen’s comedy about in-law intrigue. But Husbands and Wives, his 13th collaboration with Farrow, hits home like none of the others. Some of their exchanges draw unintentional laughs, as when Gabe says no to Judy’s question, “Do you ever hide things from me?” But occasionally the coincidences enrich the humor that is already there, as when Gabe, commending Rain on her writing, says, “I thought your fine was great about how life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad television.”
The movie, of course, begs the chicken-egg question of which came first. In the case of Husbands and Wives, Allen appears to have written the script before getting involved with Soon-Yi, but Farrow’s discovery of the affair, in January, coinicided with the filming. Fortunately, when the movie gets into gear, art transcends gossip. At first, it is alarming to see the anger engraved on Farrow’s face. She looks as if she cannot stand to be in the same
shot as Allen. But with such acid lines as, “You use sex to express every emotion but love,” she makes a convincing impression of a woman whose patience with marriage has expired.
Still, the portrayal of Farrow’s character remains unflattering. Gabe writes her off as “passive-aggressive—she gets what she wants.” And Allen has given the juicy women’s roles to Davis and Lewis. Davis has the funniest scenes and plays them to the hilt. Lewis, brimming with twitchy, overripe adolescence, adds depths of disarming intelligence to the delinquent sexuality that she displayed in last year’s thriller Cape Fear.
Allen, meanwhile, lets his own character off the moral hook just as he does in all his movies. He makes it very clear that Rain is the sexual aggressor, not Gabe. What is a middle-aged man to do? And Gabe, demonstrating more presence of mind than Allen, has the good sense to do the right thing. The film-maker has shunted all truly reprehensible male behavior over to Jack, whose sins range from hiring a prostitute to being enraged and embarrassed by the stupidity of his new girlfriend. Gabe, in fact, is the only character in the movie who keeps a level head and preserves his honor.
In that sense, Husbands and Wives has the same blind spot as all the other movies in which Allen has cast himself as an upstanding object of desire. Stylistically, however, the movie marks a departure. Nearly all action is shot with a hand-held camera. Its circling, swooping movement creates a fluid documentary realism—and a sense of disorientation that can be dizzying. But at regular intervals, the cameraas-confessor sits still while each character talks to an unseen interviewer.
Fortunately art has a longer shelf life than gossip. If the movie is a hit, it will be tempting to attribute its success to celebrity voyeurism. But it deserves an audience on its own merits. And in the end, despite all the parallels, Husbands and Wives serves as evidence that an artist should not be confused with his work.
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