Monday, February 25, 2008

#96: Husbands and Wives (Allen, 1992)

Woody Allen has made an illustrious career as a filmmaker tackling the subject of love and relationships from every possible angle but none are as more delicately profound or intimate than Husbands and Wives which would prove to be his final collaboration with Mia Farrow; his wife at the time and recurring star in many of his films starting in the early 80’s. At the time of its release, the film caused a media sensation resulting in many critics accusing Allen of using it as a springboard to attack Farrow. In retrospect, it makes sense that people would ultimately jump to this conclusion because of the striking similarities between the characters they play in the film and their real-life relationship which sadly came to an end shortly after when Allen’s scandalous affair with his adopted step-daughter Soon-Yi Previn surfaced. As is the case with many movie celebrities, their on-screen persona or artistic endeavors tend to be intermingled with their real-life so the question remains: Where does one draw the line in forming a distinction between the two? It’s a tricky business that relies on presumptions rather than effective criticism and is ultimately reductive. It is the opinion of this humble critic that the artist and the art they create are inseparable but should be examined as separate entities. As DH Lawrence famously once said, “Never trust the artist, trust the tale.”

With that statement in mind, viewing Husbands and Wives from an objective standpoint reveals that Allen isn’t so much as revealing personal details of his relationship with Farrow. Instead, he is more interested in exploring the reasons why relationships are so difficult to maintain and the destructive nature of human folly when love is thrown into the equation. By grounding the film in a quasi-documentary style, Allen breaks the barrier between fictional characterizations to reveal something a little more privy to actual life. The anonymous documentary crew is given direct access to interview the various characters with questions pertaining to their relationships with one another. As a creative gesture, Allen does not dispose of the grainy, hand-held camerawork often associated with the genre and continues to use it, capturing even the most private moments between characters – furthermore blurring the line between fiction and truth.

The story centers predominantly around two couples: Gabe (Allen) is a literature professor who is happily married to Judy (Farrow), an art magazine editor. Their best friends are Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) who come over for drinks one night to announce that they are getting a divorce. This shocking information sets off a chain of events in the relationship between Gabe and Judy where they slowly begin to drift apart as buried feelings along with unfulfilled desires are brought to fruition. What begins as a harmless quarrel of dissatisfaction escalates into a serious problem as they struggle to keep their relationship from falling apart. Jack and Sally are also finding it difficult as divorced middle-aged singles despite creating a fa├žade of happiness with their newfound partners just to spite each other. Gabe starts up a relationship with a bright young female student named Rain (Juliette Lewis) as Farrow forms an attraction with a handsome co-worker named Michael (Liam Neeson). Far from your typical romance of disenchanted lovers, Woody Allen skillfully places his characters in specific romantic relationships that insightfully comments on the complex nature of love and human companionship while at the same time having a sense of humor about it. Who hooks up with who is of minor importance in contrast to Allen’s established thematic framework and search for rational explanations concerning why relationships have to be some complicated and what makes them work. By the end of the film it is clear that he has still yet to find the answer.

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