Michael Koresky on Husbands and Wives

Wading in the psychosexual muck somewhere between the despairing depths of September (conspicuously, predictably absent from Film Forum’s lineup) and the kiss-and-don’t-tell roundelays of Hannah and Her Sisters and Manhattan, Woody Allen’s 1992 Husbands and Wives looks, with each passing year, more and more like the director’s one true post–Crimes and Misdemeanors masterpiece. Here, every barb, every carelessly tossed off remark stings with its full impact, whether it’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 Mia’s devastating allegations. There’s even something conciliatory in its compellingly layered portrait of the concessions that go into a relationship, and the film feels like it’s genuinely made up of a plurality of voices; usually, Allen’s ensembles seem mostly like a stringing together of Woody surrogates, yet here he’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 characters’ words are later used against them—everyone’s contradictions and hypocrisies are exposed via a precise editing that pits everyone in sharp, dialectical opposition, even if they don’t know it. If you’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.

It’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 Davis’s hilarious neurotic-cum-psychotic Sally often stealing the show. Yet Davis’s endless apoplectic, tactless rages (usually uncorked at inopportune moments during calm, white wine–tinged dinner dates) are but some of so many memorably excoriating moments: Sydney Pollack’s terrifying sudden switch to abusive tyrant when embarrassed by his infantile “tofu-crystals” girlfriend (Lysette Anthony); Farrow and Allen’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 Allen’s ever shot) Juliette Lewis’s star pupil in the back of the taxi cab, trying to give constructive criticism to teacher Woody’s manuscript, only to be met with condescension, screeching self-defense, and insults. Wisely, Allen keeps the camera the entire time on Lewis’s face, which shifts from pliant to defiant to incredulous; Woody’s voice is the cruelest it’s ever been (a precursor to the self-flagellation of Deconstructing Harry), and by keeping it off-screen he enhances his character’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, vérité style, the camera vertiginously moves around Mia and Woody’s apartment with the abandon of a housefly, trying to capture every turn and revelation as Davis and Pollack’s Sally and Jack announce their impending separation to the astonished, and in Mia’s case, horrified, other couple. Unadventurous viewers once upon a time complained of motion-sickness while watching this, though it’s doubtless, with the advent of reality TV and handheld-happy action pics, anyone would kick up much of a fuss these days; Allen’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 “artlessness” was another smart way to foreground technique, something he’s been bringing to American film from the very beginning.

There’s obviously a Cassavetes quality here (as noted in the title itself), which is fitting as Allen was soon to move to his “indie” 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. There’s no rapture in Husbands and Wives, only rupture. “It’s over, and we both know it,” Farrow says in quiet defiance, looking haunted, like a latter-day Rosemary Woodhouse: It’s the closest Woody Allen’s come to a horror film.