On the battlefield of broken relationships that is Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen is bracingly out of control. Carlo Di-Palma’s restless camera and Susan E. Morse’s whiplash editing often create a dizzying blur just to keep pace with the sexual salvos. Allen has never crafted anything as fiercely funny as this comedy of coming apart; it’s a groundbreaking film, full of sublime performances alert to the violence done in the name of love. The question now is, will anyone notice?
Woody and Mia’s mudslinging in the press has reduced their movie to a source for new dish about their bitter split. But what about the film as a film? Allen’s richest work (Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors) has always used the personal to bore through to something larger about the human condition. Husbands and Wives is no exception.
The chaos begins when college professor Gabe Roth (Allen) and his wife, Judy (Mia Farrow), open the door of their Manhattan apartment to their friends Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis). “Jack and I are getting a divorce,” says Sally. Gabe is stunned. But the usually serene Judy reacts hysterically, as if threatened. Sally says they just want to see what it’s like to be apart. But her fixed smile belies her comforting words.
Later, the Roths examine their own marriage. “Am I cold in bed?” asks Judy. She’s jealous of Gabe’s students. “They don’t want an old man,” says Gabe, who can’t accept that Judy — a divorced mother — still wants more kids. He demands assurance that she’s wearing a diaphragm, a request she finds a betrayal of trust.
The wrenching intimacy of these scenes must have been hard on Allen and Farrow. But anyone can understand the pain of releasing long-suppressed feelings. In several scenes, the characters talk with an offscreen interviewer. Gabe is asked, “Have you been honest with your wife?” Hardly. He’s been flirting with a student named Rain, played with seductive poise and crack comic timing by Juliette Lewis.
Though this May-December infatuation is chaste compared with Allen’s affair with Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, it’s raised a lot of eyebrows. But Allen gives the thorny issue a deft spin. When Rain indicates she desires more than her writing teacher’s approbation, Gabe asks, “Why do I hear $50,000 worth of psychotherapy dialing 911?” The two share a lingering kiss on her twenty-first birthday, with Rain’s mother (Blythe Danner) nearby. But Gabe backs off. He is shocked by Rain’s history of bedding older men, including her father’s partner. The withering blow comes when Rain dares to criticize his writing; his goddess is suddenly a twit. Rain has a theory: “Life doesn’t imitate art; it imitates bad TV.”
If so, it’s Allen’s genius to mine truth from the seemingly mundane. Sally bristles like a soap-opera diva when Jack shacks up with an airhead named Sam (Lysette Anthony). But she’s harder on herself for failing to reconcile her hunger for independence with her need for Jack. Leave it to the great Judy Davis — defiantly witty in a towering performance — to turn what could have been a misogynist clichT into a woman of passionate heart.
Sally eventually meets Michael (Liam Neeson, in his best shaggy-gentle mode), an editor at the art magazine where Judy works. After several hilariously failed attempts, Michael breaks through Sally’s sexual reserve. Jack is more happily randy, until his young blonde fails to fit in with his old friends. When Sam prattles at a party, a humiliated Jack brutally drags her away. It’s an ugly, uncompromising scene, matched later when Jack finds Sally in bed with Michael. Pollack, the Oscar-winning director of Out of Africa, has done wonders before in comic cameos (Tootsie, The Player). But Jack is a large, ambitious role, and Pollack fills it with exceptional nuance and power, he’s terrific.
While Jack and Sally try to save their marriage, Gabe and Judy let theirs go. Judy begins an affair with Michael. Her husband before Gabe describes her as “passive-aggressive” — a quiet manipulator. Farrow, an underrated actress, mutes these unsympathetic colors by showing how much Judy has been wounded by the impermanence of love.
Ironically, though Farrow and Allen have costarred in eight films (he’s directed her in thirteen, including her personal best, The Purple Rose of Cairo), they have never enjoyed a conventional happy ending. And they don’t now. “Can I go? Is this over?” says Gabe to the interviewer. He’s left confused and alone as the film fades to Cole Porter’s musical question “What Is This Thing Called Love?” Gabe’s only excuse is that “the heart has no logic.” Allen may have blown it as a parental role model but not as an artist. He’s still pushing into perilous frontiers. Husbands and Wives is a defining film for these emotionally embattled times; it’s classic Woody Allen.