Husbands and Wives: Woody Allen at His Best

I saw the funny and poignant Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen’s triumphant comedy-drama, in its world premiere, at the Toronto Festival of Festivals, one of the best and most diverse film festivals in the world. I will report about the Toronto festival in a later column, but I mention the context for my viewing because of the special ambience at the press screening: high expectations for a good film and sincere wishes for Allen’s return to top form, after falling on creative hard times. There was a feeling of uneasiness among the critics, all trying to separate the Woody Allen they know off-screen from the one on-screen.

At the same time, it was impossible to put aside what you read about the Allen-Farrow family scandal in the popular media. The press screening turned out to be quite painful–which had little to do with the superb quality of the movie.

In the course of Husbands and Wives, the unusually tense Mia Farrow, playing Allen’s long-time wife, tells her husband Gabe, a professor of literature and novelist:
“You really trust no one, do you”
“Are you never attracted to your younger students”
“Do you still find me attractive”
“We make love less and less.”
“You use sex to express every emotion but love.”

The eternal, ever complex, question, “is life imitating art, or art imitating life” is so much on the surface of this inescapably autobiographical film that you find yourself fighting the excess baggage you inevitably bring to the screen.

Some viewers may go to the Allen movie only–or mostly–because of the excessive media attention to his break-up with Farrow, his companion of 12 years, and mother–biological and adoptive–of his children. Though the motivation to see the film may be dubious, it is a testament to the film’s merits that the audience will leave the theater enriched by a remarkable film. At this point of his career, Allen desperately needs a commercial hit. With the possible exception of Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen has not made a good or commercial movie since Hannah and Her Sisters, back in l986. Six years is a long times in the annals of Hollywood.

There is no doubt that Husbands and Wives is a worthy film–vintage Allen. It’s a good companion to what now becomes a trilogy, consisting of the superb black and white Manhattan (l979) and the Oscar-winning Hannah and Her Sisters.

But there is also something fresh about the new movie–it’s raw and messy in theme and style. Again using distinguished cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, Allen shoots the break-up scenes loosely, even jerkily, with a hand-held camera. This visual device highlights the emotional insecurities and anxieties of Allen’s gallery of characters.

Over the years, Allen has fought hard to keep his individuality as an auteur. He has managed to be continually inventive, shifting styles quite radically and effortlessly from one film to another (contrast, for example, Broadway Danny Rose and Radio Days). In a number of attempts to create ponderous Ingmar Bergman-like movies (Interiors, September, Another Woman), Allen tried to prove himself as a serious filmmaker, a heavyweight moralist, forgetting that he could to make his most serious points in comedy rather than pseudo-drama. There was really no pressing reason to make these films other than Allen’s wish to make great films (which they were not). Worse, Allen began to show contempt for the humor and fun that had characterized his earlier efforts.

In Husbands and Wives, Allen seems to have found a new lease on humor, on subject matter–and possibly on his own personal life. The new movie displays Allen at his best–as a writer, director, and actor.

Known for his meticulous casting, particularly women, in Husbands and Wives Allen overdoes himself. The immensely talented Judy Davis gives such a stellar performance that she is bound to be remembered at Oscar time. Davis is cast as Sally, wife of Jack (played by director Sydney Pollack), who walks out on his marriage after meeting a beautiful aerobic instructor. Davis is highly amusing, but also pathetically touching as a mature, high-strung woman trying to come to terms with her advancing age and emotional needs. It’s much harder to dispassionately evaluate Farrow’s performance as Gabe’s dejected wife with a secret ambition to write poetry. Farrow looks depressed, her acting oddly disquieting, but then, again, what we see on-screen may be tied to what we know about her off-screen.

What’s ultimately disappointing about Allen’s comedy-drama is that he resorts to conventional explanations (actually clichs) of how and why long-lasting marriages dissolve. “My heart does not know from logic,” says Allen to an adoring student. And when his best friend takes up with a much younger woman, he retorts, “It’s like your IQ is suddenly in remission.” From a filmmaker on Allen’s caliber, one expects deeper explanations that the routine beliefs that love is love and sex is sex.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Original Screenplay: Woody Allen

Supporting Actress: Judy Davis

 

Oscar Awards:

The winner of the Original Screenplay was Neil Jordan for The Crying Game.

Marisa Tomei shockingly won the Supporting Actress Oscar for My Cousin Vinny in what was one of the most competitive years in this category.

 

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