Wednesday 11 December 2013

Movie Review: Husbands And Wives (1992)

Woody Allen delves into the soul of the institution of marriage through the lives of two couples. Husbands And Wives uncovers a complex web of dependence, resentment, longing and confusion.

A pair of middle-aged married couples are also best friends. At the start of a dinner outing, Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) suddenly and nonchalantly announce that they are splitting up, shocking Gabe and Judy (Allen and Mia Farrow). Judy, an arts magazine editor, is particularly disturbed, and begins to question the strength of her marriage to Gabe. They have been drifting apart, can't agree on whether or not they want to have a child, and Gabe's position as a university professor of literature exposes him to plenty of temptation in the form of fawning young female students.

And indeed, Gabe starts spending time with Rain (Juliette Lewis), one of his students. She is independent, beautiful and thinks the world of him. Meanwhile, Jack enters into a relationship with the much younger Sam (Lysette Anthony), a health-obsessed aerobics teacher. Sally pretends to be enjoying life as a single woman, but in reality she is miserable. Judy eventually introduces Sally to Michael (Liam Neeson), a co-worker at the magazine, and they seem to hit it off, although Michael wants to progress the relationship faster than Sally is ready for. Judy actually harbours strong feelings for Michael, a further strain on her unraveling relationship with Gabe.

Allen, who directed and also wrote the screenplay, picks up on several difficult but pervasive themes. Both Jack and Gabe start relationships with younger women, as they get an ego boost by interacting with appreciative women who could almost be their daughters. Allen pushes further, exploring the limits of these cross-generational relationships. Sam's obsession with astrology and health begins to aggravate Jack, while Gabe gets a rude awakening with Rain's scalpel-like honesty in criticizing his work from the perspective of a more liberated era.

Both Sally and Judy are exceedingly difficult to please. Sally is a perfectionist who can never be fully complimentary about anything, and insists on picking away at any little item that does not fully satisfy her. Judy is used to getting her way with an understated victim act, turning most issues in her favour by magnifying the impact to her happiness yet rarely acknowledging the feelings of others. When Jack and Sally announce their split Judy is more upset than either of them, and when Gabe agrees to her request that they can try and have a child, she abruptly changes her mind with no acknowledgement of his attempt to please her.

Husbands And Wives pokes into many of the awkward issues faced by married couples, including reduced sexual activity, boredom, lack of attentiveness and the aggravation caused by over-familiarity. And yet the film also starts to find the strands that bind, the core strengths that can hold a relationship together despite all the buffeting. Accommodation, forgiveness and tolerance emerge as themes late in the movie, as one couple discover that the frustrations also comes with plenty of comforts.

Stylistically Husbands And Wives is all about the hand-held camera hovering right around the living rooms and bedrooms of adults talking through their crises. Most of the film consists of exceedingly long takes, the camera moving along with the actors from room to room as conversations intensify, heat-up, then cool down, only to re-ignite. The viewer is effectively invited into the homes and intimate lives of Jack, Sally, Gabe and Judy, for better or for worse.

The four central performances are good without being exceptional. There is a slight element of theatricality, and an absence of genuine deeply emotional tones, as Allen keeps the mood generally light and looks for hints of humour despite the serious topics. The characters speak directly to the camera at regular intervals, the fake interviews used as a mechanism to further elaborate on their thoughts and actions. It's a gimmicky technique that is not really needed in the context of the movie.

Husbands And Wives proved to be fiction echoing stranger fact for Allen, as around the time of its release his long-term real-life relationship with Farrow ended and he became romantically involved with the much younger Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow's adopted daughter. Men and women may never fully understand the forces of attraction and repulsion between them, only that the chemistry can become exceedingly messy.

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