My maths might be a little off, but I think I’m half way through this Woodyssey, which is also the career point at which I recall becoming really interested in Woody Allen growing up. Not only his films – his plays, his short stories, his stand up comedy albums. (In my late teens I could recite ‘The Moose’ routine verbatim, a skill which never came in handy.) Although I don’t think I saw Husbands and Wives at the cinema, I certainly remember its release, coming as it did after the director’s very public, very messy breakup with co-star Mia Farrow.
The background of this film’s release will probably always haunt it, which is a shame because even without that context this is one of Woody’s watershed films that marked a real turning point. These are the films which connect with a wider audience, and usually show Woody doing something different; films like Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters, Match Point and so on. Husbands and Wives is definitely a departure for the filmmaker. After the period, stylised Shadows And Fog and the whimsical, rarified Alice, comes a film that is full of vibrancy, piercing dialogue and contemporary characters.
The story follows two married couples, although one at the beginning of the film announces they are separating. While that more volatile couple (played by Judy Davis and Sydney Pollack) try to make it in the single scene with varying success, the other couple (played by Mia Farrow and Woody Allen) solider on, with resentment and infidelity both creeping in (courtesy of Liam Neeson and Juliet Lewis). By the flim’s end, everyone has had to examine themselves and their relationships with surprising results.
Husbands and Wives actually shares a stylistic device with Woody’s first film, The the Money and Run, with characters being interviewed during the course of the story. Here, however, the actual narrative is also shot in a documentary style with a handheld camera. Throw in some French New Wave style jump cuts, no music on the soundtrack, more swearing than we’re used to with Woody, and a general roughness, and we are presented with something that feels new.
Of course, cynics might argue, it only feels new, and that it isn’t really. Going back as far as Manhattan, Woody has been setting up pairs of couples and combing through their relationships with a very sharp comb. But where this film differs from other contemporary efforts (like, say Crimes and Misdemenors) is that here no one goes through an existential crisis. The drama strictly interpersonal. In fact only the very first line, a throwaway joke from Woody Allen’s character, references God. Structurally, he keeps the drama straight too, with no magic realism up his sleeve.
If the shaky cam and jump cuts almost undo this drama, the performances save it, especially Judy Davis as the highly strung ex-wife which is in a class of its own. There is a naturalism here that feels like, for once, Woody is presenting us with real people and real problems. Of course, again, a cynic might argue it only feels like that. But it works. This is one of those rare Woody Allen films that not only seems to realise its creative ambition, but which also connected with an audience – something the previous couple of films at least failed to do. Unshackled from the context of its release some 22 years later, Husbands and Wives is still surprising, dynamic and thought provoking movie making.
Next week: Manhattan Murder Mystery