Watching all of Woody Allen's films in order: Husbands and Wives (1992)

Then When we first moved to Sefton Park in 1991, it wasn’t long before we’d found the local video shop, Gerrard's on Aigburth Road. It was convenient, cheap, and since it was also a newsagent you could buy a newspaper whilst borrowing your copy of Husbands and Wives. It’s the place were I hired all of the Star Trek I watched over an extended period and the shop is still there; the VHS gave way to DVD, but it’s still battling along against Lovefilm and Blockbuster. Here it is on Google Street View:

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Now Before we talk about the things you’re supposed to talk about in relation to Husbands and Wives, I wanted to mention the fairly huge, inadvertent mental derail early in the film. It’s from during one of Woody’s confessional moments and if you know anything about British politics …

But, once—
One time, many years ago...
...I was living with this fabulous, interesting woman...
...named Harriet Harmon.
I'm ashamed to say this, but Harriet Harmon...
...was the great love of my life.
It was a very passionate relationship. I loved her very intensely.
And, you know, we just made love everywhere.
She was sexually carnivorous.
We did it in stalled elevators...
...and in bushes and people's houses, at parties in the bathroom.
In the back of cars, she'd put a coat on our laps...
...and grab my hand and stick it between her legs.
She was really something.
And she, you know, she was highly libidinous.
You know? She wanted to make love with other women.
She got into dope for a while. She'd break that thing...
...that you sniff when she'd have her orgasm.
I was getting a real education.
I was fascinated. I was absolutely nuts about her.
And ultimately she wound up in an institution.
I mean, it's not funny, it was a very sad thing.
She was great, but nuts.

We see Harriet. She’s played by the wonderfully named Galaxy Craze and has something of the Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction about her. But it doesn’t really help. Once you’ve heard the name, this Harriet permiates your brain, everything else Gabe has to say about their relationship is unintentionally funny.

Theoretically the last of his tent pole relationship dramas and some have said the last of his truly great films (though of course I’d disagree) Husbands and Wives is more famous for what was occurring behind the scenes in the private lives of Mia and Woody. The gossip, tittle-tattle, whys and wherefores are covered in this admittedly rather good contemporary Entertainment Weekly cover story which sets out the basics and highlights the synchronicities.

If the story had broken now, in this TMZ/Perez Hilton/Twitter media-saturated gossip environment, I can’t imagine Woody’s career would have continued in the same way, since people these days seem to believe the first thing they read, no matter what proper facts are revealed to be further down the line. The original rumour as reported in at EW article is shocking; the truth simply sounds like the plot of a Woody Allen film, almost this one in fact. Nevertheless, I do know people who say they hate his films because they still believe he’s, um, King of the Glitterland. Oh, the arguments.

Husbands and Wives isn’t an easy film to love yet I’ll spend a few more paragraphs than usual explaining why I do. There’s nothing especially original about these stories. Like September or Interiors, this is just a middle class soap opera. Although there are funny moments, there’s plenty of polite and not so polite cruelty in abeyance as the main characters emotionally slam into each other, melodramatically failing to comprehend that it’s their own self-centred selfishness and self-destructive personalities which are stopping them from having a quiet, happy life. Only when a storm comes and literally cools them off do they realise that it’s thought not action which is required, generosity of spirit and modicum of understanding.

It’s also oddly structured. The confessionals suggest a kind of faux-documentary but the rest of the film is very much from the third person. When lawyer series This Life employed a similar trick of having its characters comment on the action, it made very clear that they were addressing a psychologist and not breaking the fourth wall. But like the later French romance Une liaison pornographique which accesses the same device (and the voiceovers in Hannah and Her Sisters), you accept it as the narrative trick that allows us a way into the psychology of the characters or arbitrarily close off the stories at the end. We don’t ask who Harry and Sally (and all of the other characters) are supposed to be talking to at the close of that film.

Carlo Di Palma’s frenetic photography, which also suggests documentary, mirrors the emotional wretching. Woody disingenuously says that he wanted to make a film which was about content over style, but in playing everything in long takes and shooting with handheld cameras he gives the film very particularly style. At one stage, the characters are captured on a street corner through the window of a taxi passing them at high speed. The opening five minute scene in which the camera careens about the tiny apartment attempting to capture all of the important action and acting is far cry from the carefully composed shots of Shadows & Fog but still, it’s a stylistic choice and seems more so as the film progresses and the camera slows down and is almost locked off by the end.

I remember seeing a review of the film with Barry Norman at the time of release and he was obsessed with this camera work, concerned that it might cause sea sickness in the audience. Now, especially on television, it’s become something of a cliché, turning up in sitcom and drama. Even history documentaries or Panarama look like the cameraman purposefully had a pint or two before shooting began to just get the right look. Except in most cases, while they might think that crashing the camera across David Starkey or Jeremy Vine’s face makes the programme visually interesting, its really just a distraction. In the best dramas, like Husbands and Wives, this kind of hand-held camera work should reflect the characters or aid the storytelling.

Judy Davis is a force of nature, her fiery eyes bursting from a pallid face that suggests Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? The storm at the close of the film is supposed to mirror the angry moment when she discovers that her husband has moved in with the other woman. Lyssette Anthony is a similar revelation, especially considering this was rush released the same year as her appearance as Miss Scarlett in the ITV gameshow version of Cluedo (alongside Tom Baker as Professor Plum!). There aren’t many actresses who can convincingly fulfil the brief of playing a character who is supposed to be academically inclined and yet also totally vacuous as does here. Liam Neason also appears, relatively early in his career at a time when he was otherwise still playing characters called “Man” and Juliette Lewis in the period just after Cape Fear when she was the hottest young actress in Hollywood.

But this is also, of course, for obvious reasons, Mia’s final film with Woody. I don’t agree with Spignesi that you can identify what was shot before and after the unfortunate incident. Her character is supposed to be emotionally drawn in the places when she looks like she hasn’t slept, so I think, perhaps naively, that it’s more likely a job of acting. But it seems fitting, if ironic, that she would close this decade long collaboration playing a wife who separates from her husband who happens to be played by Woody. As I said the other day, having originally watched the films in isolation I’d thought that Mia’s performances were roughly the same. What I’ve discovered is that she is an actress of surprising range, from gangster moll to cocktail waitress. Luckily, for reasons that will become apparent, Husbands and Wives won’t be the last time I’ll be seeing her in action.

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