#48: Husbands and Wives
and  Another Woman

H&W (USA, 1992; dir. Woody Allen; cin. Carlo Di Palma; with Mia Farrow, Woody Allen, Judy Davis, Sydney Pollack, Juliette Lewis, Liam Neeson, Lysette Anthony, Ron Rifkin)

AW (USA, 1988; dir. Woody Allen; cin. Sven Nykvist; with Gena Rowlands, Mia Farrow, Ian Holm, Gene Hackman, Blythe Dannner, Harris Yulin, Betty Buckley, Sandy Dennis, Martha Plimpton, Bruce Jay Friedman, Frances Conroy, David Ogden Stiers, John Houseman, Philip Bosco)
IMDb // My Full Review

I know that we are all totally over the idea that DVD jacket copy has anything to do with the film being presented, but still, some people just need to be fired. "A directorial tour-de-force, Husbands and Wives is a comic valentine from an American master," the packaging proclaims, and all I can hope is that no one ever sends me a valentine like this. The kind that emits a low ticking sound and turns your fingertips black when you touch it. I have a friend whose first date with her now-husband was to see Husbands and Wives, which is a little bit like birthing your first child in the middle of an orphanage. It's amazing what people survive. Amazing, too, what they don't, and how ruthless some of them are in dissecting the frayed ends of ruined love, and how willing we are to experience an artwork as bitter as Husbands and Wives in order to admire its toughness and absorb its lacerating perceptions.

One of the funniest and saddest fragments in Eula Biss' very funny and very sad experimental memoir The Balloonists resonates powerfully with this film, and with other Woody Allen dramas, like the more quietly harrowing Another Woman. I'm thinking of the page where the author remembers how she grew up thinking that everyone loved their work, which was why they chose it; that barbers must harbor a passion for hair; that they've studied its physics and its biochemistry; that they have bonded so heartily with hair that they know just how it will fall, how the shape of the head will change with each snip. And then she meets a barber who admits he stumbled quite by happenstance into this gig, and is wondering laconically about turning the place into a burger joint. He's not even sure how he got into scissoring in the first place. Pondering this exchange, Biss senses a rhyme with some of her recent broods about relationships: "It's possible, I suppose, that all those married couples are just people, not especially interested in intimacy, who somehow ended up married." Surely that is what's happened to Judy Davis's Sally and Sydney Pollack's Jack, who make strained, falsely casual theater of announcing their separation to their best friends, Mia Farrow's Judy and Woody Allen's Gabe. And surely that's what's happened to Judy and Gabe, too, which is why she cannot handle her own anger about her friends' disclosure. It's why both of them seize this dawning specter of illicit behavior as a prompt to test the waters of their own non-wedlocked desires. They goad each other into being the first to confess their shared, ashy unhappiness—even acting as arsonists of their own relationship, so that their allegations of unhappiness will ring true. Farrow, looking drawn and under-proteined, like she's been birthing Rosemary's babies for twenty years, soldiers around the movie in rectangular sweaters and rough, enormous hunting jackets, like she's literally out for a kill, though she's also (and this is kind, to a point) the only one of the four protagonists who asks any real questions of anyone else. Allen's Gabe is narcissistically interested in self-knowledge but in no other forms, and Sally and Jack sprint away from all forms of knowledge. Such stunted figures leave Carlo Di Palma's jogging camera to follow their wobbly, inarticulate sprints and stomps across their lawns, their whipped races around corners and into waiting taxi-cabs, their wrestling matches with idiot lovers whose reflex response to the withdrawal of love is to scream bloody murder in the middle of a driveway.

The movie isn't without humor, as when Sally can't help taking acrid exception to everything anyone says or does or likes: "I usually hate Mahler, but that was good," she rasps unpersuasively, or "I'm only yawning because I'm hyper-oxygenating," or my personal favorite, when trying to elude an unwanted kiss, "Metabolically, it's not my rhythm." Judy writes off a former husband succinctly as "the kind of guy who gives you an appliance for your birthday," and Gabe coos about the brilliant short story that precocious, self-serious student Rain (Juliette Lewis) has written for his creative writing class, entitled "Oral Sex in the Age of Deconstruction." Make no mistake, though, that Husbands and Wives is a bloody affair. Everyone's got little pieces of everyone else under their fingernails, and the feeding frenzy gets so intense that some of the actors go after their own characters with the same pitiless, voracious zeal that these same characters bring to their howling spats with each other. Pollack is as unforgiving of his character's late-middle age hedonism as Farrow is of Judy's passive-aggressive manipulations. Though everyone is constantly screaming "Bullshit!" at everyone else, I can't tell how often the line is actually scripted. The film would be a deeply unpleasant affair, even notwithstanding the overbearing echoes of the Allen-Farrow nuclear winter that was playing out just as the film was released, if its candor about the seldom-filmed realities of lover's quarrels weren't so bracing. "We've had this conversation before," Farrow says dismissively, and anyone who's ever been in a longterm relationship knows that this apparent forestalling of argument is actually stage one in its scaly unfurling. The seething physicality of verbal spats, the intermissions for huge mugs of tea or nostalgic reminiscence, which never actually mean that the storm has passed. The sharp annoynace of hearing your best friends celebrate their rescued relationship, when you've just finished turning them into convenient alibis for torpedoing your own happiness. I haven't experienced all of this, and I hope vehemently not to, but Husbands and Wives is a credible, compulsively rewatchable tale about love turned into warfare. Allen and his collaborators place their fingers so persuasively on the grudges, flare-ups, and disavowals that are ineradicable elements of intimacy, sometimes capable of eating the better elements alive.

Another Woman is in some ways a dry-run for Husbands and Wives, with Mia Farrow's lachrymose cries of anguish and marital alienation, and the reversal-based structure of one broken couple that reunites and one "happy" couple that falls apart. The mood of the movie isn't quite as ambitious, since it rarely attempts anything on the order of a joke. Another Woman self-consciously mimics the introspective pall of a Bergman rather than the savage, neurotic vituperation that makes Husbands and Wives one of Woody's most boldly committed films; he's even got Bergman's cinematographer Sven Nykvist filming totally incongruous shots of the protagonist's dead mother, as a gratuitous chance to recreate the sun-dappled, pastoral melancholy of the exterior shots in Cries and Whispers. Much more often, though, Another Woman stays indoors, among tight hallways and cold, Chantal Akerman-ish symmetries, and the narrow color palette (browns, purplish browns, and salmon-shaded browns) mirrors the carefully regulated emotional range of Gena Rowlands' psychologically besieged philosophy professor. I've written at length about my admiration for Another Woman, in its attention to character and its consummate playing, but what impresses me anew about the movie is its subtle erosion of real/imaginary boundaries, not just in the explicitly theatrical scenes, but in its patent dramatic devices: talk channeled through heating vents, muffling pillows that conveniently slip of their own accord, and verbatim repetitions of dialogue. The final sequence indivisibly melds aspects of literary fiction, private memory, and redacted fantasy, all scored to the dreamy abstractions of Satie's "Gymnopédie 3." Subtle, revealing slips abound: why, for example, does Rowlands's Marion insist she was never once alone with her best friend's lover, and then offer the contradictory rationalization that she once told him that so long as he was dating the friend, a relationship was out of the question? If I knew my Nordic dramatists better, I'd know if the atmosphere of Another Woman is as Strindbergian as I'm tempted to call it. I at least feel confident applauding Woody for making a subjectively framed film about one woman's autumnal regrets and her restive mind that's as memorable and involving as his blistering, seasick portrait of four or five collapsing, dead-ended, or shakily reconstructed relationships in Husbands and Wives. He doesn't think of almost anything nice to say in either movie, but thank goodness (at least at that point in his career) that he didn't let that stop him from saying anything at all.

Permalink Favorites Home Blog E-Mail