Husbands and Wives

Film Review of "Husbands and Wives"

by Linda Lopez McAlister

Woody Allen's new film is entitled "Husbands and Wives" and indeed it focuses on two heterosexual married couples but the theme of the film is broader in scope than that. It is really a cinematic exploration of people in long-term relationships in which the spark of sexual passion has died. And that's a situation you might find yourself in whether or not you are traditionally married and whether or not you are heterosexual.

In watching this film I made an effort to block out of my mind the real-life travails of Woody and Mia and consider the film in its own right--but other members of the audience were not so inclined and for better or for worse the ironies generated by various bits of dialogue in relationship to what we know about Allen's and Farrow's personal situation became part of the experience of viewing this film at this time.

One thing seems clear: the problem of maintaining a relationship when sexual passion has diminished and the exploration of various options for dealing with that situation was of intense and immediate concern to Allen as he wrote and directed this film and the result is one of his most focused and brilliant films to date. The fact that in his personal life he has chosen an option that is not chosen in the "Husbands and Wives" is like an ironic coda to the film -- which, by the way, ends with a scratchy old record playing over the credits and posing the question, "What is this thing called love?"

The film is everything that the best of Allen's Manhattan comedies of manners are: sophisticated, poignant, insightful, and, in places, very funny--for all of the characters are just a tad larger than life and made that way through a kind of satirically exaggerated acting style and the lavish use of close-ups.

The film begins with Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sidney Pollock) announcing the breakup of their long marriage. Jack almost immediately moves in with a New Age aerobics instructor half his age. Meanwhile Gabe Roth (Allen), a writer and writing professor at Barnard, is attracted to and pursued by a student named Rain (Juliette Lewis) who has a thing for older men. It is not, of course, only the men who are unsatisfied in these marriages (though perhaps they still have more opportunities to initiate change); and once things get going both Sally and Judy explore other options. Actually they explore the same other option, Michael, played by Irish actor Liam Neeson. In the end several different possible resolutions are played out.

Almost the best thing about the film is the way Allen has structured the narrative as a combination of documentary "talking heads" and dramatic sequences--both of which have such a ring of truth about them that you think they must have been improvised rather than scripted. This gives the opportunity for the characters to comment on the events that are occurring and to get various characters' views on the same situations.

The other wonderful thing is the camera work, which is largely of the hand held cinema verite variety. In the hands of Allen and his cinematographer this creates an intensely intimate viewing experience. The camera moves with the characters as they interact with one another in an almost choreographic way. This movement and the extensive use of close-ups and tight shots has the effect of practically putting the audience in the frame with the actors (certainly in the room with them). But watch out! Be sure to get to the theater early enough to get a seat at least in the middle if not the back of the theater. I arrived late and had to sit up close and this constantly shifting and lunging camera work was enough to cause motion sickness in the third row!

Aside from feeling nauseous by the end I found this to be a really interesting, arresting, entertaining, and important film that I recommend highly.