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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Wednesday
Jul012009

« In Which We Deal With Woody's Unreal Expectations »

Woody's Husbands and Wives

by CHAD PERMAN

Make no mistake about it, marriage is difficult. It's a wonderful, complicated, messy, beautiful, frustrating ball of emotions that can strangle you one day and make you blissfully happy the very next. At the same time, it just might be the single most misunderstood institution in our lives, and Hollywood is in no small part responsible for that, feeding rather gleefully into the 'happily ever after' syndrome that we all, on some level, aspire to — despite its absolute impossibility. No relationship (let alone a marriage) is ever a fairy tale, at least not in a conventional sense; nothing can live up to that, though we very nearly kill ourselves trying to prove exactly the opposite.

Which is precisely why a film like Husbands and Wives is such a welcome cinematic breather of sorts, something that those of us in the midst of the battle for happily ever after can watch and realize, heads nodding with knowing laughter: "Yes, exactly!"

Did desire really grow with the years? Or did familiarity cause partners to long for other lovers? Was the notion of ever deepening romance a myth we had grown up on, along with the simultaneous orgasm?

Perhaps the best thing about Woody Allen's 1993 classic is its recognition of life and relationships as they actually are, rather than as we would like them to be. True, at the time it was released Allen and co-star Mia Farrow were embroiled in a rather nasty and hugely publicized break-up, but the fact that the film itself - if not the stars' actual lives - seemed so accurately to depict the state of modern marriage ultimately means something. Whether we stay together or divorce, cling to each other or go our separate ways, this film has something to tell us, something to offer by way of proximity. And in the end, what else can great art ever really hope to do?

Judy: Do you think it could ever happen to us?
Gabe: Well, I'm not planning on it, are you?

Gabe and Judy Roth (Allen and Farrow) are a modestly happy married couple of ten years whose lives begin to unravel when their closest friends, Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis), suddenly announce to them one night before dinner that they have decided to separate. They assure Gabe and Judy that this is an amicable decision, mutually arrived at and agreed upon: things simply weren't working out how either of them wanted any more, and they both felt the need to explore other options in life. And, while this turns out to be only barely true in actuality — an ugly collision of naivity and denial that manages to masquerade as a type of bold open-mindedness on the part of both Jack and Sally — it's still more than enough to shake Gabe and Judy's own relationship to its very core. After all, if their best friends in the entire world could split up, how could they (or anyone else, for that matter) ever expect to stay together for the long haul?

Jack and Sally's decision to separate quickly leads Gabe and Judy to some tough, emotional, heartbreaking conversations about the reality of their own relationship. In their room together late at night, getting ready for bed, they have the kind of conversations that most married couples end up having from time to time — at least, those couples who actually talk to one another — the kind where you carefully confess and backpedal, provoke and soothe, a crazy and numbing dance known so well by long-time lovers. You only hope that in the end they don't break you apart.

Judy: All those memories, they're just memories...they're from years gone by and they're just isolated moments. They don't tell the whole story.

As Gabe and Judy struggle to regain their footing, Jack and Sally continue their exploration of "other options". Jack quickly takes up with another woman — a much younger, ditzier aerobics instructor whom he quickly moves in with — while Sally slowly begins to test the waters of the dating pool, eventually jumping in with one of Judy's work colleagues. At first, their separation from each other allows them fleeting moments of relief that they mistake for happiness, forgetting that freedom always brings with it a certain anxiety and that, as unglamorous as it is to say, there is always a certain comfort and safety in the familiar that the excitement of something new can rarely replace, at least not fully.

While the first few pleasurable bursts of romance, lust, and love might convince us that things will somehow work out differently this time, they seldom, if ever, do. Miserable, but determined to keep trying, Jack and Sally struggle on.

Sally: Well, I've learned that love is not about passion and romance necessarily, it's also about companionship: it's like a buffer against loneliness.

Meanwhile, Gabe begins to fall for one of his much younger writing students (this is a Woody Allen movie, after all) and Judy starts to develop strong feelings for someone in her office (Liam Neeson). Gradually, their relationship drifts apart, the slow erosion of trust — along with continual arguments over whether or not to have children ∏— ultimately wearing the both of them down. It's heartbreaking to watch but, again, it's so very real.

This is how relationships often play out in each of our lives, whether we want them to or not. While some of us manage to struggle through the tough times and keep the whole thing together somehow, others feel they can only stand by and watch as the whole thing goes up in flames.

Jack: That stuff is really important, someone to grow old with...the thing that's so tough, that kills most people, is just unreal expectations.

Husbands and Wives is many things, but above all, it is honest. Make what you will of Woody Allen's own personal marital and domestic failings, the man knows how to hold up a mirror to all of our lives, our relationships, and show us the many ways — both humorous and heartbreaking — that we choose to live. It's a rare thing in American cinema today to see marriage so deftly captured onscreen — not just in its broad strokes but in its smaller moments as well that when we find a film like Husbands and Wives, we must be careful to embrace it. As far as I can tell, it's really the only sensible kind of antidote we have to all those happily-ever-after stories, the cheap and dangerous Hollywood romances that only serve to whet an appetite that life itself can never hope to fulfill.

Chad Perman is the senior contributor to This Recording. You can read his essay on Brewster McCloud here. You can read his essay on National Lampoon's Vacation here.

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Reader Comments (3)

Whenever I make the mistake of renting/borrowing a piece of utter (and foolishly recommended) shytt, watching *this* movie instead (ten minutes after the opening credits of the aborted shytt) clears the air nicely. Plus I could never abide Ms. Judy Davis prior to seeing this and after seeing it I considered tattooing her magnificent raging face on my ______ .

July 1, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSteven augustine

this is such an underrated movie. i love sydney pollack's performance, and i regularly masturbate to images of judy davis

July 2, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteralex carnevale

uh oh... I sense a virtual tacit club forming. But seriously: what I love? How Pollack sneaks that little hint into his performance, at the end, that his character is *doomed*.

July 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSteven augustine

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