Husbands and Wives (1992)

“I’ve always had this penchant for what I call Kamikaze women….I call them Kamikaze because they crash their plane into you. You die with them.”

The film  Husbands and Wives, Woody Allen’s brilliantly funny examination of marriage, begins with married couple Professor Gabe Roth (Woody Allen) and his wife Judy (Mia Farrow) engaged in a low-level bicker right before their friends Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack) arrive for the evening. The two couples plan a night out enjoying each other’s company over dinner, but before they leave for the restaurant, Sally has an “announcement.” With a sort of subdued excitement, Sally tells Gabe and Judy that she and Jack are going to separate.

Husbands and wivesSally’s announcement is delivered with the same sort of emotion you’d expect if this couple had made a decision to go on holiday in the Bahamas rather than their usual destination. While Judy is devastated by the news, which to her seems irrational and enitrely unexpected, Gabe is suprised but content to accept Jack’s statement that it’s “no big deal.” The news is so unsettling to Judy that the evening is entirely spoiled.

Sally and Jack’s announcement of a separation kick starts the rest of this very funny film. While the tightly-coiled Sally claims to look forward to being single, she becomes the date-from-hell when she discovers that Jack has had a woman on the side for some time, and that he’s now living with his bimbo aerobics instructor, Sam (Lysette Anthony).  Judy fixes up Sally with the lonely office bachelor Michael Gates (Liam Neeson), a man who’s just broken up with his long-term girlfriend. And added to the pot is Gabe’s young student, Rain (Juliette Lewis) whose short story “Oral Sex in the Age of Deconstruction” gets his attention.

The film follows Sally’s dating adventures, and Jack’s ‘relaxed’ new life with his aerobics instructor, while in the meantime Gabe and Judy’s marriage dives into the slow-burn of decay and disintegration. Gabe and Judy engage in night-long bickering that begins innocently enough with pointed questions tossed like javelins, and these sometimes esoteric questions devolve into accusations as the night wears on.

As the characters pursue each other in a sort of A Midsummer Night’s Dream compendium of unsuitability, shrewish, sour Sally dates the needy Michael, Jack watches inane comedies with airhead Sam, and Gabe wonders if Rain will be his next kamikaze woman.

Filmed in a semi-documentary style, the drama is intersected with interviews conducted with each of the subjects as they answer questions or render their version of events. Woody Allen’s savvy and often merciless approach to marriage captures all the subtle nuances–denial, avoidance, projection, and sex as a tool to dance around so many other issues. Judy’s ex-husband even makes a few appearances in interview slices as he recalls Judy’s passive-aggressive behaviour and while he argues that she “gets what she wants,” we see it happen through flashback encounters with Gabe and in a passionate argument with Michael.

Crimes and Misdemeanors is my favourite Woody Allen film, but Husbands and Wives comes a very close second. Marriages are impenetrable to outsiders, and each marriage has its own rules of play–often unspoken and barely understood by its participants, but in Husbands and Wives Woody Allen’s wit and intelligence effectively dissects the hellish dynamics of two very different relationships. From any other director, Husbands and Wives would be just another drama, but Woody Allen constructs two very believable marriages and then tears them apart with his usual inimitable style.

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