Michael Koresky on Husbands and Wives
Wading in the psychosexual muck somewhere between the despairing depths of September (conspicuously, predictably absent from Film Forumâ€™s lineup) and the kiss-and-donâ€™t-tell roundelays of Hannah and Her Sisters and Manhattan, Woody Allenâ€™s 1992 Husbands and Wives looks, with each passing year, more and more like the directorâ€™s one true postâ€“Crimes and Misdemeanors masterpiece. Here, every barb, every carelessly tossed off remark stings with its full impact, whether itâ€™s between longtime married couples, mismatched romantic newbies, or ill-advised May-December flirtations. Yet Husbands and Wives never feels misanthropic, even though it was made in the death throes of the Woody-Mia relationship and released amidst their split and Miaâ€™s devastating allegations. Thereâ€™s even something conciliatory in its compellingly layered portrait of the concessions that go into a relationship, and the film feels like itâ€™s genuinely made up of a plurality of voices; usually, Allenâ€™s ensembles seem mostly like a stringing together of Woody surrogates, yet here heâ€™s often giving up center stage to his costars, and letting them speak for themselves. The result is something like a work of crosshatch art, where actions pile up, one on top of the next, both hiding and revealing, and charactersâ€™ words are later used against themâ€”everyoneâ€™s contradictions and hypocrisies are exposed via a precise editing that pits everyone in sharp, dialectical opposition, even if they donâ€™t know it. If youâ€™ve only seen the film once, and especially if it was amidst the 1992 scandal, you simply have to see it again, and get ready for a revelation.
Itâ€™s difficult to think of any American film made since that has taken such a raw, off-putting approach to male-female relationships; no romantic comedy this, even with Judy Davisâ€™s hilarious neurotic-cum-psychotic Sally often stealing the show. Yet Davisâ€™s endless apoplectic, tactless rages (usually uncorked at inopportune moments during calm, white wineâ€“tinged dinner dates) are but some of so many memorably excoriating moments: Sydney Pollackâ€™s terrifying sudden switch to abusive tyrant when embarrassed by his infantile â€śtofu-crystalsâ€ť girlfriend (Lysette Anthony); Farrow and Allenâ€™s devastating final conversation before the split, moving between attempted reconciliation, misplaced sexual come-ons, and mutual pity, so intimate and close-to-home it feels wrong to even be watching it; and (my personal favorite, and one of the best standalone scenes Allenâ€™s ever shot) Juliette Lewisâ€™s star pupil in the back of the taxi cab, trying to give constructive criticism to teacher Woodyâ€™s manuscript, only to be met with condescension, screeching self-defense, and insults. Wisely, Allen keeps the camera the entire time on Lewisâ€™s face, which shifts from pliant to defiant to incredulous; Woodyâ€™s voice is the cruelest itâ€™s ever been (a precursor to the self-flagellation of Deconstructing Harry), and by keeping it off-screen he enhances his characterâ€™s disconnectedness from both his own work as well as this young object of desire.
As had been often mentioned at the time of its release, Husbands and Wives was shot by Carlo DiPalma in a handheld look fairly radical for a Hollywood studio picture. Right from the beginning, with its single-take, vĂ©ritĂ© style, the camera vertiginously moves around Mia and Woodyâ€™s apartment with the abandon of a housefly, trying to capture every turn and revelation as Davis and Pollackâ€™s Sally and Jack announce their impending separation to the astonished, and in Miaâ€™s case, horrified, other couple. Unadventurous viewers once upon a time complained of motion-sickness while watching this, though itâ€™s doubtless, with the advent of reality TV and handheld-happy action pics, anyone would kick up much of a fuss these days; Allenâ€™s normal method is to plunk down the camera as actors wander in and out of the frame with controlled panic, and certainly this new form of â€śartlessnessâ€ť was another smart way to foreground technique, something heâ€™s been bringing to American film from the very beginning.
Thereâ€™s obviously a Cassavetes quality here (as noted in the title itself), which is fitting as Allen was soon to move to his â€śindieâ€ť nineties period. With Orion going bankrupt, he moved to Columbia TriStar for this and Manhattan Murder Mystery, before moving out on his own to work with the independent company Sweetland Films, with his highly contentious producing partner, Jean Doumanian. Not surprising that for the next twelve years, it was all about comedy again: this is raw stuff, bereft of crowd-pleasing moments, happy endings, or even the bittersweet wrap-ups of his earlier neurotic love stories Annie Hall and Manhattan. Thereâ€™s no rapture in Husbands and Wives, only rupture. â€śItâ€™s over, and we both know it,â€ť Farrow says in quiet defiance, looking haunted, like a latter-day Rosemary Woodhouse: Itâ€™s the closest Woody Allenâ€™s come to a horror film.