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HUSBANDS AND WIVES

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Woody Allen, Blythe Danner, Judy Davis, Mia Farrow, Juliette Lewis, Liam Neeson, Sydney Pollack
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1, Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Two Trailers
Length:  108 Minutes
Release Date:  April 16, 2002

“You use sex to express every emotion except love.”

Film ***1/2

Are marital ills contagious?  Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives would seem to argue so.  Two couples are also paired best friends.  At the beginning of the film, one shocks the other with their announcement of splitting up.  And their decision begins to bring out the insecurity, unhappiness, and ill ease in the other seemingly happy marriage.  Ironically, by the end of the picture, the splitting couple is back together, while the staying-together couple are split.

Relationships are fragile creatures, and Allen as screenwriter and director has rarely been so insightful.  There are enough fears and neuroses to make any marriage undertaking a difficult one…do we really need analysts also telling us things like sexual attraction usually disappears within the first four years?  Sheesh.

The four characters comprising the two married couples are well cast.  Jack and Sally (Pollock and Academy Award nominee Davis) are couple number one, who have just lowered the boom on their best friends Gabe and Judy (Allen and Farrow).  Jack and Sally are calm and civil about their decision; it was made without anger or animosity, merely logic.  Judy, in fact, seems to take the news much harder than they do.

Both couples proceed forth from that singular event.  Jack begins to see his aerobics instructor, a young woman with a fantastic figure and a lightweight I.Q.  Judy fixes up Sally with her editor Michael (Neeson).  Watching both figures in action is funny, touching, and highly revealing.  Both pretend to be happy, but Jack clearly misses having his mind stimulated more than his libido…and Sally is so forcefully opinionated and contradictory, we feel for the lovestruck Michael when he talks about how wonderful she is!

In the meantime, their breakup has had an impact on Gabe and Judy, who seemed to be happy.  Judy finds herself questioning everything she once believed in.  Gabe seems more passive.  “Are you happy with our marriage?” she asks him.  “I don't think about it,” he replies.  “Isn't that a good thing?”

Each is tempted with infidelity.  Judy secretly has a crush on Michael, despite fixing him up with Sally.  Gabe is fascinated by one of his students, Rain (Lewis), who shows great promise as a writer.  Neither act upon their impulses, but something else happens that throws their perceptions out of whack…Jack and Sally reunite.

Allen's film plays out like a documentary.  His cameraman, Carlo Di Palma, shot the movie with hand held cameras and often in long takes that has the camera scrambling to find its focal point.  Characters are often interviewed by an off-camera director and asked direct questions about how they feel, what they think, and what they intend to do.  There is even a bit of narration to move the story forward.  Allen used the faux documentary approach once before in the delightfully comic Zelig, but here, he uses it as a tool to emphasize his search for truth in the tumultuous world of relationships.

“So much time is wasted and so much is devoted to the prettiness of films,” Allen said with regards to the style of Husbands and Wives.  “And I said to myself, why not just start to make some films where only the content is important?” 

One of the best examples is the opening shot, which is long and unbroken, and seems to be drama in three dimensions.  There is no place the actors can't go; they use the entire interior space as a stage.  But with the way the camera is free to follow them and change directions and points of view, we get a much closer and different look than we might have theatrically.  In some ways, it's very voyeuristic, given the nature of what the characters are going through.

Perhaps adding even more to the voyeuristic quality is the famed trouble between Allen and Farrow in real life, which coincided with the movie.  In the film, Allen is attracted to a twenty year old girl, but for his character, common sense prevails and it comes to nothing.  I guess it goes back to what he wrote in Annie Hall about life not imitating art, but how in art we try to get things to come out right because they seldom do in real life.

So at the end of the movie, Gabe isn't happy…but who is?  Jack and Sally reuniting comes across more as a failure than a triumph.  Judy gets what she wants, but in her final interview sequence paired with Michael, we wonder how long it will take before Michael realizes what he says about being the pursuer is completely false? 

Husbands and Wives might be the kind of film that dramatically merits a sequel…if only it wouldn't seem so cruel to follow these people any further than we already have.

Video ***

Given the more primitive nature of lighting and photography Allen strived for in this film, Husbands is not a visual banquet, but still a good looking disc in the hands of Columbia Tri Star.  The anamorphic widescreen transfer (full frame included also) is clean and clear throughout, with colors and tones that look natural in their completely inartistic way (aiding to the documentary feel).  Detail level is quite good, and images render with integrity both in regular room lighting and in one sequence where candles are used.  All in all, a quality effort.

Audio **1/2

All Woody Allen movies are recorded in mono, as they tend to be dialogue oriented.  Husbands and Wives is no exception.  The dialogue is clean and clearly rendered throughout, and merits an extra ½ star for a bit of dynamic range brought about by sequences of intense argument.

Features *

The disc includes trailers for this film and Manhattan Murder Mystery.

Summary:

Husbands and Wives is another insightful, smart, funny-with-a-touch-of-sad film by Woody Allen, who earned another Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for his efforts.  It's documentary styling, superb cast, uncanny sense of direction and editing and perfect script make this a picture that ranks near the top of his best works as a filmmaker.