Sunday, February 19, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.15: Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 1992’s Husbands and Wives.

Grade: 94 (A)
In 1992, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow ended their twelve-year romantic relationship (and ten-year creative partnership) after Farrow discovered Allen’s sexual relationship with her 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Allen and Previn claimed that Allen was never a father figure to Previn (she had been adopted by Farrow and Andre Previn), but the damage to Allen’s reputation was done. What followed was an ugly legal battle over custody of their children (Farrow won) and Allen’s marriage to Previn (with whom he is still married to). Husbands and Wives was shot before the scandal came to light, but its striking resemblance to the final days of Allen and Farrow’s relationship gives the film a new relevance: it is Allen’s most personal and emotionally direct film, as well as his final masterpiece.
Gabe Roth (Allen) and his wife, Judy (Farrow), are happily married, by all appearances. When their friends Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis in an Oscar-nominated role) announce that they’re getting a divorce, the two are far more shocked and upset than Jack and Sally appear to be. Jack, it turns out, is seeing the younger, less high-strung Sam (Lysette Anthony). Judy introduces Sally to her handsome, Irish co-worker Michael (Liam Neeson), and the two start a relationship. Gabe and Judy then begin to break apart: Judy wants a child, Gabe doesn’t. They’re not sexually active anymore. Judy is attracted Michael. Gabe, a teacher, has taken a liking to his student Rain (Juliette Lewis). Before long, everything comes to a head as the two face the fact that their relationship isn’t quite as perfect as it appears.
Given Allen’s adoration of Ingmar Bergman, one might be inclined to immediately assume the film is his tribute to Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The two have superficial similarities, but Husbands and Wives is far closer to the works of American independent filmmaker John Cassavetes (whose wife, Gena Rowlands, Allen had used in the Bergman-inspired Another Woman). As photographed by Allen regular Carlo Di Palma, the film uses Cassavetes-style hand-held camerawork, natural lighting, often non-linear editing, and a you-are-there documentary style (combined with “interviews” with the main characters about the situations at hand). This gives the film a more direct feeling than most of Allen’s previous works. There’s no romanticism, dream sequences, or breaks from reality here. It’s all “real”, all the time, and the cast’s stunning, realistic, nakedly emotional performances only adds to the feeling.
The film focuses almost entirely on the difficulty of maintaining relationships while balancing love and sex. Jack and Sally have no passion left in their relationship- Sally is too high-strung, too cold, and she doesn’t satisfy Jack anymore. Jack turns first to prostitutes, then to the younger, more liberated Sam. Sally tries dating a co-worker, Paul (Timothy Jerome). Paul is very happy to see Sally, but she’s distracted, high-strung, and she leaves her date in the living room to go scream over the phone that she knows Jack is unfaithful while they were married. It’s a scene of pitch-black comedy where the dejected Sally takes her personal feelings and applies her anger towards all men, including her mild-mannered date.
When Gabe and Judy finally meet Sam, Judy is immediately hostile due to her loyalty to Sally. Gabe is hesitant himself. Jack defends his actions, saying Sam is someone he can relax and breathe around, as opposed to the hyper, cold, overly cerebral Sally. Gabe tells Jack that he’s “fuckin’ nuts” and disparagingly calls Jack’s new aerobics-instructor girlfriend “a fuckin’ cocktail waitress” (and yes, it’s jarring to hear Woody Allen say “fuck”, but it’s bracingly honest rather than forced).
It isn’t long before Sally does meet someone- Michael, a charming, attractive, bright Irishman who’s immediately attracted to her. Judy is far more enthusiastic about Michael than Sally (she admires that Michael weeps while quoting Yeats while Sally balks at it). Michael takes Sally to a Mahler concert. He’s entranced, Sally’s bored, as she finds Mahler too sentimental (in an interesting note, both Sally and fellow Radcliffe graduate Mary from Manhattan dislike Mahler). The overly-romantic Michael tries to sweep Sally off her feet, but she’s too reluctant and reserved. He’s sweet, but it’s clear she finds a lot of his tendencies pretty corny. When the two finally make love, Sally enjoys it, but she doesn’t orgasm. She’s too cerebral about sex, and the two have had completely separate experiences.
When Jack finds out Sally is seeing someone else, he’s immediately upset. It’s clear the relationship with Sam isn’t working out- he can relax around her at home, but she’s not intelligent, she takes astrology very seriously (and disparages Jack’s intellectual friends, who don’t), and she believes that the universe knows astrology is logical and provable. Jack, drunk and embarrassed, drags her away from the party, and the two have an ugly row outside their friends’ house (Jack looks like he’s about to hit her at several times). She screams her head off as he yells that she’s a lunatic (“Get in the car, you infant!”). Jack drives over to his old house (Sally: “No, it’s MY fucking house!”), where the two argue in front of Michael and Sam. In spite of their rocky history, they’re getting back together. Ultimately, they need marriage; they’re not comfortable being single. They’ll choose companionship over passion.
Gabe and Judy can’t come to the same conclusion. The autobiographical nature of the Allen/Farrow characters is eerily prescient, considering what was about to happen to the two in real life. Like Allen and Farrow, they’ve been together for ten years, and they have no biological children together (Judy has children from a previous marriage). They wonder aloud if they’d ever break-up: he doesn’t trust anyone, her included, and he’s a complete cynic. She’s upset by his autobiographical novels and short stories (ahem). He has no respect for her judgment. Gabe feels that he always picks the wrong women- the crazies. Doomed relationships are romantic to him, no matter how unstable the people he’s attracted to are.
Now there’s the queasy question of Gabe’s attraction to a twenty-year-old student. Rain isn’t as close as Soon-Yi Previn was to Allen, but it’s still a deeply uncomfortable relationship. Gabe is in awe of Rain’s “intelligence” and “talent” (particularly with her short-story “Oral Sex in the Age of Deconstruction”), but Rain is a bit off, in part because of the character’s troubled romantic life (she’s dated several older men), and in part because Juliette Lewis, as a performer, is always a little off (here it’s effective). Gabe’s lust for Rain is obvious. He claims that “you’ve never been kissed until you’ve been kissed on a rainy Parisian afternoon”. He lets Rain read his novel, where he would never trust Judy’s judgment (Judy, in turn, lets only Michael read her poetry). Rain thinks the book is brilliant, but criticizes its attitudes towards women, negative ideas about life, and portrayal of shallow women. Gabe immediately gets defensive and calls her a “twenty-year-old twit”; perhaps his respect for her intelligence has its limits (although he admits he’s more attracted to her now that he knows she’s not a “passive, worshipful pupil”).The two end up finally kissing at Rain’s 21st birthday part in one of the most uncomfortable scenes in Allen’s filmography. The relationship doesn’t go any further than that; there’s no way it could last (truth, it turns out, was far stranger than fiction).
It finally comes to Gabe and Judy’s break-up. The two have had smaller, passive-aggressive fights throughout the film, but they’ve had it now. Gabe is too judgmental and not supportive enough for Judy. Gabe thinks Judy is nuts. The two have shared memories, but those memories are isolated moments- they’re not the full story. The two split-up, with Gabe briefly pursuing Rain and Judy going straight for Michael. His feelings still lie with Sally, but Judy is a master at passive-aggression (her first husband claims that “she always gets what she wants”), and while Michael’s passion for Judy is questionable, the two do end up marrying. Gabe realizes too late that he blew it.
The film does not have the warmth of Allen’s previous relationship movies- where Annie Hall and Manhattan explored the giddy highs of love and Hannah and Her Sisters showed the possibility of finding a lifelong companion, Husbands and Wives shows the ugly end of love, where relationships never last and the break-ups are always ugly. The film’s comedy is less one-liner driven and far more akin to the awkward, pitch-black, uncomfortable comedy of Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale or Greenberg. The film’s bleakness never feels forced, however, but rather refreshingly honest and nakedly emotional. Allen’s later “dark” films would be too sour, too misanthropic, and too misogynistic, but here he implicates himself as much as anyone else. In the end, Gabe has messed up, and his life will never be the same. After his confessions, all he can ask the documentary crew is “Can I go? Is this over?”

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