Ten years ago, Husbands and Wives played second fiddle to Woody Allen’s all-media split with Mia Farrow. Forget the film’s serendipitous theatrical premiere, Allen’s lost masterpiece, along with Crimes and Misdemeanors three years earlier, remains one of his most personal and incisive works to date. Though it’s as disciplined and pragmatic as its wellspring (Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage), this neurotic but frighteningly universal masterpiece is still one of Allen’s least explicitly Bergmanesque ventures. Throughout the film, Allen catalogs the insecurity and fear that rocks one marriage when another breaks apart. Gabe Roth (Allen) scoffs at a television scientist’s thoughts on God. He thinks God plays hide and seek, perhaps because man looks for God when he is desperate to assign blame. His friends Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollock) announce their breakup but Gabe’s wife, Judy (Mia Farrow), is the one who turns the couple’s otherwise amicable decision into tragedy.
Grace’s reaction may be audacious and selfish but her rant evokes a woman both in denial and uncomfortable with change. Gabe falls for his student Rain (Juliette Lewis), who loves older men and looks for reason (read: God) in Time magazine. How does Grace reconcile the fact that she is not one of Gabe’s fantasy “kamikaze women”? It may be difficult to separate the events of Husbands and Wives from Allen’s real-life split with Farrow, but while the film is shot like a documentary, Allen camera doesn’t observe the film’s marital chaos as much as it seemingly instigates it. How can Gabe hope to keep his wife when he does not want to give her a child? Allen makes fabulous use of characters walking off-screen. In one scene, Gabe and Judy fight over the use of a diaphragm before she walks out of their bedroom. Allen’s camera stays on a shot of a white door, forcing the spectator to take the role of a neurotic Gabe, who believes that his wife may purposefully not use protection to defy his wishes. Judy spends enough time in the bathroom to feign the insertion of a diaphragm and while she’s livid that Gabe would call her honesty into question, could she be putting on an act? This is the genius of Allen’s paranoiac gaze.
Allen understands the emotionally fragile and confusing period after a breakup: the jealousy of an ex-lover finding love with another too soon; the desire to return to an ex-lover when a new lover disappoints; and, most fascinating, the comfort men and women find in a loveless but comfortable state of constancy. Sally vows to remain single yet she is driven to replace Jack. Thank God for Judy Davis, playing cinema’s most fascinating neurotic. The hyper-frigid Sally thinks of men-as-hedgehogs and men-as-foxes when receiving cunnilingus from Michael (Liam Neeson). She’s fond of emotional buzz terms (“It was a buffer against loneliness”) and finds herself frequently hyper-oxygenated. Metabolically, fidelity is her rhythm though she claims, not unlike Judy, that change is essential. Allen bravely posits one’s fear of change and the comfort in finiteness. In the end, Husbands and Wives becomes a mirror of false illusions, relentlessly held up by Allen before the faces of anyone who has ever looked for a reason to leave only to sheepishly stay behind.