Now that l’affaire du Woody has receded into the archives of gossip, we can watch Husbands and Wives with less of a knowing smirk. The uneasy parallels between Woody’s art and Woody’s headlines still exist in the film, and when Mia Farrow’s character tells Woody “It’s over,” the moment has a sharper pang than it should. The furor has not so much ensured Husbands and Wives‘ box-office success as deepened its impact: That which does not kill the film makes it stronger.
All that aside, Husbands and Wives emerges as Woody Allen’s most vital work since Crimes and Misdemeanors. With his last two attempts, Alice and Shadows and Fog, Allen seemed to have lost his way, surrounding himself with New Age whimsy and undigested lumps of other people’s art. Now he’s back in the thick of things, crafting a tale of frustrated love and dashed expectations that has all the messiness of life. And all its bitterness: Compared with the honest but comforting relationship movie Singles, Husbands and Wives looks like Cape Fear.
Woody plays Gabe Roth, a novelist and writing professor working through a sexless, touchy marriage to Judy (Mia), an art-magazine editor. Their closest friends, Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), have just split up after years of their own sexless, touchy marriage. Husbands and Wives follows these four as they roam Manhattan, searching for … for whatever it is their marriages don’t offer. Gabe becomes infatuated with Rain (Juliette Lewis), a 20-year-old student who idolizes; Jack takes up with Sam (Lysette Anthony), a bouncy aerobics instructor and astrology devotee who can give him a relaxed good time but not much else; Sally begins a shaky romance with Michael (Liam Neeson), Judy’s colleague at the art magazine, whom Judy herself has eyes for.
Whew. It’s a testament to the writing and performances that we don’t need a scorecard. Concentrating this time on the actors as actors, not as fodder for cameos (see Shadows and Fog), Allen lets his eager cast fly. Pollack, far more forceful an actor than a director these days, plays a scene with Lysette Anthony that rivals any film moment this year for sheer agonizing embarrassment (and she matches him step for venomous step). He’s the stand-out, but the others — particularly Davis and Lewis — project volumes of meaning with each nervous twitch. Allen’s cinematographer, Carlo Di Palma, puts on his own twitchy (but striking) performance: The camera zooms alarmingly, whips from person to person, fractures the narrative with jump-cuts. At times, Woody’s new cinematic influence seems to be MTV Sports.
Inevitably, the focus swings to … Woody and Mia. How much of the film was shot before Mia’s discovery of the famous nude photos? You won’t be able to tell; their scenes together are all equally edgy and depressed. (Allen reportedly filmed the Gabe/Judy break-up scene only days after Mia found Woody out.) Over and over, they mourn what their relationship was and can never be again. Their split is painless — a relief for both sides. Husbands and Wives gets very deeply into the ways two people can hurt each other, and Gabe/Woody and Judy/Mia seem to call it quits because they just can’t bear to watch their love become a vicious mockery of itself. (As, of course, it did, in real life.)
Judy doesn’t even need to find out about the nubile Rain (and Gabe never gets past a hot kiss with the student anyway). Gabe and Judy grow apart without accusations or fury, just as Woody and Mia grew apart long before the Soon-Yi affair, and that is where art imitates life. This last waltz between America’s most prestigious film couple has a tone of muted regret, not confession or sensationalism. “My heart doesn’t know from logic,” says Gabe at one point. In Husbands and Wives, Allen shows us what — for better or worse — his heart does know.