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April 6, 2018

Husbands and Wives

by Franz Patrick


Husbands and Wives (1992)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) wait for their friends, Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), in their home so they can head out to dinner together. Gabe and Judy are expecting to eat Chinese food, but what they do not expect is to swallow the news about Sally and Jack getting a divorce. The couple discloses it so flippantly, Gabe is left not knowing what to think or say while Judy responds with a smidgen of hostility. This is a surprise to Gabe and Judy, to say the least, because they have always believed that Jack and Sally share a great marriage. Meanwhile, the divorce forces Gabe and Judy to inspect what does not work in their marriage and face the possibility that perhaps what they have, too, is beyond repair.

“Husband and Wives,” written and directed by Woody Allen, is a picture that is alive, so observant about human psychology and behavior, that looking at the way the characters move and react as well as listening to them speak and be quiet recalls the feelings of reading a novel so immersive, you keep wanting to know more about what happens next even after encountering the final word on the last page.

The four principal performers are not only equal to the task of creating complicated and fascinating characters, they are attuned to one another’s rhythms so no one shines more brightly than the other. For instance, I admired the way Davis allows Sally to be so shrill and controlling and yet at same time opening her up just a little so that we can feel the pain and shame that she grapples with for not being more thoughtful toward her former husband when he needed her most. Pollack gives Jack a certain level of exhaustion from constantly being corrected and criticized by his ex-wife. He is the first to decide to search for happiness, however he defines the word, and just when we think he has it, Jack starts to question the value of his newfound relationship from behind Pollack’s spectacles.

On the other hand, Farrow plays Judy almost like a mouse in voice and the way she scuttles about the apartment. And yet, arguably, she is the smartest of the four—most interesting in that maybe she is not even aware of it—because she has a way of always getting what she wants. Allen, sporting his usual but signature nervous energy, makes us feel for Gabe that even when the thought of having an affair crosses his mind, we do not hate him for it.

The screenplay treats each character like he or she is worthy of being understood. This is reflected in way Allen controls the camera during confrontations. When someone is being attacked with verbal daggers, we are behind that person’s shoulder to make it appear as though we are also being criticized. Then, when that person on the defense takes the offensive position, the camera floats behind the other character’s shoulder so we get to hear where that person is coming from.

All the while the focus is on the dueling faces and how their expressions change throughout a course of a fight. If I were the one behind the camera, I would not have done it any differently. This is because, at least for me, when I confront another person, my eyes go directly on the other’s face to see which of my words trigger the most response: To learn which ones hurt so I can use them again during the heat of the moment and, conversely, to learn which words not to use when things have settled down.

The picture has the courage to poke fun of itself, too. Gabe, a college professor, decides to let one of his most brilliant students, Rain (Juliette Lewis), read the novel he is working on. Though she claims to love what she has read, she criticizes Gabe, which is really Allen, the director, only under a different name, for his ideas especially how he perceives women. Rain’s assessment of the novel can be taken as a direct criticism of the film which is very smart because it is one step ahead of the thing I plan on addressing initially. That playful self-awareness adds an additional mirror alongside one already being held in front us.

“Husbands and Wives” is able to successfully balance quiet desperation as much as the expressions that demand attention. It stumbles a little toward the end, however, when it uses a storm as a symbol of intensity boiling from within each character as well as the washing away of animosities. It is an elementary storytelling technique and yet so heavy-handed that I am reluctant to say that the writer-director has gotten away with it. Still, it is astute about what it wants to say and perceptive about how we might react to it.

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