Husbands and Wives (1992)


In Husbands and Wives we observe the break up of one marriage and the renewal of another.  Both marriages seem a bit destined to fail, though.

The story begins with a dinner amongst those two couples.  Jack and Sally are in good spirits as they announce their plan to split up.  Gabe and Judy (Woody Allen, Mia Farrow) are stunned, and Judy is particularly bothered.

Soon after they split, however, Jack finds a new woman, and Sally’s feathers are ruffled as she didn’t seem to think the split would be permanent.  Jack then moves on quickly to yet another woman, Sam, a very young yoga instructor.

In response to Sally’s difficulties with single life (despite her assurances that she enjoys being single), Judy sets her up with Michael (Liam Neeson).  So now both Jack and Sally are seeing other people, and it seems to be going well, except Sally is never completely at ease with Michael (though he’s head over heels for her).

When Jack learns that Sally is seeing another man, he loses his mind and snaps at Sam, mocking her and ridiculing her like a father bad at disciplining his teenaged daughter.  Jack bolts over to Sally’s place and interrupts her night with Michael.  They end up getting back together, scorning their respective rebounds.

In the meantime, Gabe and Judy question their own marriage.  Judy wants to have another child, but Gabe does not.  They slowly acknowledge their forthcoming separation while each develops feelings for another person.  Gabe, a literary professor, develops strong feelings for Rain, a young woman in his class.  Judy takes a keen interest in Michael, even after setting him up with Sally.

In the end, Judy marries Michael (after a year goes by), and Gabe comes to his senses and tells Rain that nothing can happen between them.

Another subplot is the novel Gabe is slowly working on.  He shares it with Rain, and while she says it’s very impressive, she also critiques it, pointing to things that are very prominent in Woody’s films, such as “the way your people just casually have affairs like that… are our choices between chronic dissatisfaction and suburban drudgery?”

The book is very much about the people in Gabe’s life.  He writes about people wandering around the world, lost and expecting too much from life.  It’s his reasoning as to why people stray from their marriage.  It’s also a more nuanced perspective of the problems affairs cause that he first directly addressed in Manhattan.

There, Isaac observed that people often cause their own problems, and here he’s saying that’s because we expect the wrong things or just too much from the person we choose to settle down with.

The characters in this film are all hard to watch because they complain a lot, and they don’t seem to have a firm grasp on themselves.  Jack and Sally’s feelings of levity towards their break up shows a lack of understanding of what’s really going on.  The break up of a marriage should be heavy and thought through.  They seem to break up because it’s easier than working through their real problems.

Similarly, Judy and Gabe avoid their central issues, but they do tough lightly upon the subject at the heart of their eventual break up: having a child.

The way they stray outside of their marriage reeks of desperation and a desire to feel good about themselves.  It’s also the way other affairs have been portrayed in Woody Allen’s films.  An example of this is Michael Caine’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters.  He very thoroughly set everything up so he could “accidentally” bump into his wife’s sister and then try to woo her.  He went through so many hoops to make everything seem casual, and that’s often what courting someone feels like.

Dating and falling in love is acting and putting on a performance, but hopefully it’s a performance with roots in your actual personality.  Jack goes after the yoga instructor, and it’s clear they come from completely different worlds.  While he claims to love everything she stands for, his real feelings for Sally return, and he mercilessly shoots down everything that defines Sam, because he never truly loved her.

Gabe’s budding relationship with his student is based on boosting his ego.  She does this through an attraction to him (made clear to be a symptom of some possible father-issues) as well as an endless well of compliments on his writing.  This pivots, though, when she critiques his work, and Gabe realizes he loves her more for her honesty.  That would suggest there’s something deeper than just a quick fix to his love life, but he ends up turning it down.

What does that mean?  It’s ironic that Woody’s and Mia’s break up scandal came out during the end of filming this film.

Woody’s character seems to be the most well-adjusted at the end of this film as he’s not relying on another person to fill a hole or to just plaster it over.  He’s taking time to live on his own before diving back out there.

There’s some more stuff to touch on, but I’m a little distracted because I have a pizza in the microwave and I want to watch the new episode of Westworld.

But some final thoughts: “husbands” and “wives” refers to the role we play.  It could also be titled Husbands and Wives and Mistresses, but the focus is on what makes a marriage work, not what makes an affair work.  Or, I guess a “good” affair will lead to the same roles of “husband” and “wife.”

It’s an elaboration on the idea that we create our own problems, at least in the Woody Cinematic Universe.  Jack and Sally getting back together in the end isn’t so much a realization that they were right all along but just another way to cover up a problem.  They never communicated well in the first place, so what makes us think they’re going to be happy now?

Judy ends up with Michael, but Michael seems like the kind of guy who could fall in love with anyone given enough time, and Judy is commented on (by her ex-husband) as being passive aggressive enough to always get what she wants.  Her marriage with Michael, particularly since it’s not very developed onscreen, feels like she tricked him into doing what she wants.  But the illusion might wear off like it did with her previous two husbands.

That’s all there is to say, I guess.  I liked this movie better than some of his other recent films.  Oh, I know.  One other thing I realized watching this is that I often don’t find myself rooting for Woody or any of the main characters in his films.  Woody is never the everyman hero that you can use as a surrogate for your hopes and fears.  He’s always Woody.

Because of that I find myself just playing the observer, like a jury member who shouldn’t have any biases.  I’m just waiting to see how everything plays out, and then I’ll make a judgment on what I think is the message.

This is different from most movies, I’d say, but maybe it’s not different from this type of movie.  I haven’t watched a French New Wave film in a while, so I don’t remember if I was rooting for Antoine in The 400 Blows.  “Rooting” isn’t much of a thing in these films.  I guess that makes it easier to make a broader point?  Or maybe not.  You can have a character you root for, and his or her fate suggests a broader theme or message.

There’s got to be something more to this.  I wasn’t rooting for Alvy in Annie Hall so much as just witnessing him.  I’m not entirely sure what to make of this or even if it’s a thing.

One final thing is that this was staged to look like a documentary, and it’s filmed with a handheld camera, and the editing is very disruptive.  It was very experimental in that way, often cutting shots too short, before a character is even done speaking, or lingering too long on a shot.  It might just be that Allen is playing around with new forms, or it could also be a representation in the breakdown of the marriages and the lack of empathy and thoughtfulness of his characters.  It’s like the production crew is hurrying to keep up with these characters because they act so much on impulse and out of fear that they move from one thing to another.  The camera guy is running around, almost like a Private Investigator tailing someone a few car lengths behind, but they keep losing the guy around the corner.  That’s how it felt, at least.

Here’s a quote from the movie:

Gabe: “Change equals death” – Judy: “Change is what life is made of, if you don’t change you shrivel up.”

Up Next: Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Duel (1971)

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