” Life doesn’t imitate art, it imitates bad TV.”
Compare this film with my previous choice for the list: IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE is about the unspoken tensions at the heart of human relationships in a culture that represses open display of feelings, while HUSBANDS AND WIVES treats the same subject matter by talking, talking, talking and a bit of walking and talking. There is an excess of dialogue – everyone is talking to each other, their therapists and the unseen film-makers who are documenting their relationships for an unexplained purpose.
The film begins energetically with the camera constantly moving, whipping from character to character as Jack (Sydney Pollock) and Sally (Judy Davies) announce to their close friends Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) that they are about to amicably split up. The narrative set-pieces move along at a brisk pace for 108 minutes until ends calmly, with a still camera on Allen, speaking directly to the audience, looking uncomfortable as he contemplates the ensuing impact of their friend’s announcement has on his own marriage, “Can I go? Is this over?” he says to the unseen interviewer as the screen fades to black. During the film we have grown to understand the characters to such a degree that it’s clear that it isn’t over and the events in the film have sent them into a trajectory that will continue to spin.
There are generally three types of criticism that people default to when it comes to Woody Allen: firstly, there is a difference between his early funny films to his later more serious and naturalistic films; secondly, every film since 1999 has been heralded as a ‘return to form, “his best since ANNIE HALL (1977)”; finally there are disparaging comments about him essentially remaking the same film over and over again for the past twenty years.
All of these criticisms are directed towards his prolific output that has been subject to diminishing returns. Due to his unique (for an American film-maker) production arrangements, he seems to produce a film every year, although they are not widely distributed, for a solid fan-base in Europe and his native New York.
In STARDUST MEMORIES Allen has parodied the criticism that he should have stuck to slapstick with a gag-schtick which characterised his early films, however I prefer his films that are serious contemplations about adult relationships – his so-called ‘later films. ANNIE HALL was one that marked a turning point in his career, a shift from knockabout comedy to comedy with a more serious intent. It’s inevitable that he hasn’t made a film as good as ANNIE HALL because it is probably the best film anyone has ever made – its so tender, experimental, real and extremely funny – I watch it at least once a year. It would be my personal choice but my rules exclude it because it famously pipped STAR WARS to the Oscar.
Does he remake the same film over and over again? Its probably fairer to say that as an auteur he has certain repeated motifs and concerns. He also relies on some narrative archetypes such as Pygmalion: an older man educating a younger, less cultured woman, which appears in a number of his films, for example, MIGHTY APHRODITE (1995), VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA (2008) and HUSBANDS AND WIVES. He is also interested in psychoanalysis and the East coast intelligentsia that populate HUSBAND AND WIVES, represent the stages of psychic structure of human beings identified by Fraud, the ‘id’, ‘ego’ and super-ego’: Jack has discovered his ‘id’ and starts to exercise his “pleasure principle” with his goofy aerobics teacher and Gabe has found his id in the form of Rain (Juliette Lewis reprising her annoying finger-sucking performance in CAPE FEAR (1991)) an enthusiastic, creative writing student who to exemplifies the sexual liberation that makes Gabe so tense. Allen plays his usual nebbish ‘ego’ coming to terms with his repression, entombed within his apartment furnished wall to wall with books.
There is a forth factor that inevitably appears in writing about Allen which concerns the relationship between his films and his ‘real’ life. There is an assumption that there are strong auto-biographical elements in all of his films. He is apparently being very open in his films about himself – the verité camera movement, mockumentary, improvised feel, contributes to this ‘reading’ of the film. He has used elements from his own life in many of his films, RADIO DAYS (1987) and ANNIE HALL both refer directly to events and people from his own biography. HUSBANDS AND WIVES was released at the time of the scandal of his own break-up with Mia Farrow due to his relationship with their adopted daughter, which the marketing focused upon to such an extent that it attracted unusually high audiences.
The idea of Allen confronting some of his demons in this film is a compelling one, but in the final analysis, despite the incessant talking, very little is actually revealed and the film is brilliant because of its attempt to explore universal elements of relationships rather than the parochial concerns of a couple of eccentric, celebrity New Yorkers. It is a spot-on study of human relationships which also happens to be very entertaining.
Footnote: Dirk Malcolm list watchers may be interested in a connection – Jack takes Sam to see RAN where she suggests that the film is based on King Leo rather than King Lear by reminding ‘Mr Intellectual’ that Shakespeare wrote in English, not Japanese.
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