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Husbands and Wives

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Judy Davis,
Sydney Pollack, Juliette Lewis and Liam Neeson

Written and directed by Woody Allen

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Husbands and Wives was a minor sensation upon its 1992 release, for all the wrong reasons. Star and auteur Woody Allen was caught in a storm of tabloid coverage reporting the lurid details of his bitter legal battle with former longtime companion Mia Farrow and his sensational burgeoning romantic relationship with Farrow's adopted teenage daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Bad for Allen, maybe, but fortuitous in terms of marketing. With free publicity all over the gossip pages, Husbands and Wives became Allen's highest grossing film in years, cashing in on the material's synergy with real life: Allen stars as a neurotic writer nearing the end of a troubled relationship with a woman played by Mia Farrow and entertaining an attraction to a 20-year-old writing student. Art imitating life, or the other way around?

Far removed from the controversial circumstances surrounding its release, Husbands and Wives' release on DVD deserves a reevaluation of the movie on its own merits. While it cannot be divorced from the context of Allen's tumultuous personal situation, which obviously influenced the film's striking tone and subject matter, the tawdry details should not distract from the simple truth that Husbands and Wives is Allen's most wrenching movie, and also one of his greatest.

Allen stars as Gabe, a pessimistic writer and professor, and Farrow as his wife, Judy. In the comfortable doldrums of a long-term relationship, the couple receives a shock when their best friends Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) casually announce their separation after 20 years of marriage. Gabe is surprised and fascinated by the event, Judy repulsed. As Jack and Sally aggressively, pensively, and haphazardly explore their new sense of freedom, Gabe and Judy feel the strain of maintaining their own tenuous union — especially when Gabe becomes enamored with student Rain (Juliette Lewis) and Judy with Sally's beau Michael (Liam Neeson).

In terms of ill-advised matchmakings and love triangles, Husbands and Wives is worthy of company with Ingmar Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night (a picture which Allen has, in a way, been remaking periodically over the years, with films as diverse as A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and September). In the spectrum of Allen's career, however, Husbands and Wives is as funny as any of his post-Annie Hall output, and yet each big laugh is accompanied by a soulful bruising — Allen's comedy comes not this time from simple neurosis, but from a deep, aching place of pain. As Jack and Sally wrestle with betrayal, resentment and disappointment both in others and themselves, Gabe and Judy face the prospect of bitter compromise and the baiting of their more destructive instincts.

Allen has always had a gift for writing intelligent and hopelessly human characters, but here they are more vital and vivid than ever, realized by one of the best casts the director has ever worked with. Judy Davis' Sally is a revelatory, tour de force performance, ferocious in its energy and meticulous in the effect of every jerk of her head and squint of her eyes. She is a tightly spun spool of frustration and fear, and amazing to watch from beginning to end. Pollack, better known as the director of classics like Tootsie, Out of Africa and The Way We Were, is every bit her equal, powerfully impotent as Jack is simultaneously refreshed and embarrassed by his rebound relationship with loopy aerobics instructor Sam (Lysette Anthony, a.k.a. Princess Lyssa from Krull). Farrow gives her best performance yet in her 13th (and most likely last) Allen film with a manipulative, ruthlessly passive-aggressive character, and Allen delivers a slightly more forlorn variation on his usual persona. Lewis, a rising star at the time, is sensational as the seductive Rain, making the best use yet of her coy, flirtatious, reckless demeanor, and the scene during which she discusses Gabe's new novel is an incredible showstopper — one the best scenes Allen's ever written or directed and a breathtaking showcase for Lewis' undeniable (if short-lived) talent. Also with solid appearances from Neeson, as a love-torn romantic, Ron Rifkin as a terrible analyst, and Blythe Danner who, in her brief moments, beautifully tempers the rampant cynicism as Rain's happily married mother.

*          *          *

One of the great shocks of Husbands and Wives was the drastic turn in Allen's visual style, which had recently swerved into a rich faux-European staginess. But cinematographer Carlo DiPalma's work here is remarkably different from his photography on Allen's September, Alice or Shadows and Fog. Allen echoes the raw nature of his subject matter with a shaky, immediate verité approach that would quickly become ubiquitous in independent films, TV dramas and commercials, and, incidentally, terribly misused in Allen's subsequent films. But its effect here is inspired, capturing the dizzying disorientation and emotional fracturing of personal failure. Using the conceit of narration and interview segments with the principal characters, Husbands and Wives does not feel so much like a documentary as it does some probing academic anthropological study into a culture of denial, delusion and desperation.

Sadly, Husbands and Wives, with all its brilliant sturm und drung also marked the end of Allen's reign as the film industry's most consistently terrific filmmaker. After graduating from his silly and uneven early comedies in to the observational splendor of classics like Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen rarely misstepped during his unusually prolific career until his dreadful rehash Shadows and Fog, released just six months before this masterpiece. After Husbands and Wives, however, the once-great director has rarely put a foot right, making even more valuable its generous selection of classic, unforgettable scenes: Sally's first date, Rain's cab-ride critique of Gabe's novel, Jack's fight with Sam outside the party, Rain's uneasy encounter with her therapist. In fact, the mind-bogglingly fertile period of Allen's career between 1977 and 1992 is suitably bookended by two of the director's best films: Annie Hall and this, which, watched back-to-back make for a compelling sort of psychological double-feature, illustrating a violent swing in perspective on similar matters by the same artist over the span of a career, with both approaches feeling simultaneously true and valuable.

*          *          *

As usual for Woody Allen's films on DVD, Columbia TriStar's disc is bare-bones, with a good anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) from intentionally grainy source material (a full-frame transfer is also included), while audio is a digitally mastered monaural track. The only extra is the theatrical trailer.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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