When Jack and Sally announce that they’re breaking up, it becomes a social contagion. Will Gabe and Judy begin to question their own marriage? Before you can answer, the angst has begun.
Husbands and Wives is an “Allenesque study of sexual betrayal” (Schickel 51). For Woody Allen’s Gabe Roth, the temptation comes in the form of a student in his literature class. As a professor, this would be an obvious route. After all, Jake has a younger girlfriend now, and he seems to be happy. So what if she isn’t exactly an intellectual? That Gabe objects so strongly to Jack’s choice of a new partner seems to point the finger back at him and his own furtive desires. Likewise for his wife Judy (Mia Farrow), who had such a disproportionate and emotional reaction when their friends told them they were splitting up.
It’s true that Jack’s new girlfriend can’t remember if it’s King Leer or “King Leo” (she insists it’s the latter). But does that really matter? His ex-wife Sally, meanwhile, is an insufferable know-it-all. After her first date post-divorce, she criticizes everything from the pasta alfredo sauce to her interior decorator before rejecting her date’s awkward attempt to kiss.
Gabe and Judy’s marriage becomes such a mess that they can’t seem to decide which of them wants to try to have a child. It had been Judy’s grievance that Gabe did not want to have a kid, but when Gabe offers to have sex without the diaphragm, it is Judy who doesn’t want to take any chances. The fact that Gabe offers as a kind of concession, “I don’t even want a kid,” doesn’t help matters.
Gabe’s possible love interest (aside from his wife) is his student, Rain. Rain is played by Juliette Lewis, who in 1992 was quite the hot commodity, radiating a sense of danger and sexiness (at least that was the idea). Her character’s backstory involves a suspicious amount of affairs with middle-aged men; Gabe now realizes he fits into her pattern. She recounts to Gabe her realization about her own patters:
“I said to myself, what am I doing with these older men?”
Nonetheless, she turns out to be quite the seductress to almost every man around her.
Husbands and Wives poses the question: Do brains matter in a woman?
As for Jack, his new girlfriend (his personal trainer) is young and pretty all right. The problem is that she isn’t exactly an intellectual. When she starts regaling party-goers with her thoughts on the “position of the planets,” Jack has a drunken temper-tantrum. He gets very macho, telling her to “get your ass in the car.” Likely, he is thinking that he has not chosen wisely, because his new girlfriend cannot navigate in his social milieu, unlike his ex, the brainy Sally.
In short, Husbands and Wives poses the question: Do brains matter in a woman? Allen’s answer is apparently yes. But if you look at Woody Allen’s personal life, the answer seems to be no. This is not to say that Soon-Yi is not smart, but she was not someone who was going to navigate his high-brow arts and culture world, just like Jack’s girlfriend couldn’t at his party of professors. But who cares? As long as you’re happy…
The central question to the film, and much of Allen’s other work, is whether marriage leads to “familiarity” and a lack of passion. When Jack and Sally get back together, they seem content that now that they’ve seen the other options, they’re better off married after all. “You don’t see the roots, but boy they’re there,” Jack explains about his relationship with his wife.
Jack and Sally get seem content to continue their passionless marriage into old-age.
“We’ve learned to tolerate one another’s problems more.”
“We’ve learned that love is not about passion and romance necessarily. It’s also about companionship.”
One is left to imagine that they’ve settled, and that this is not real love or a good marriage. They just don’t want to be alone. On the other hand, when Gabe and Judy break up, Gabe seems to feel like he “screwed up” and now he’s rudderless. Following your passion doesn’t work, nor does sticking it out in a passionless marriage. What to do then?
Husbands and Wives is one of Allen’s more serious, psychological films. When Rain leaves Gabe’s manuscript in the cab, she wonders if it weren’t Freudian. It’s just one of the high-brow references in a film that ventures for much more than just laughs.
This film came out about the time that Farrow and Allen started having their very public falling out and custody battle (not to mention the dubious abuse allegation). Moving forward, for his next film, Manhattan Murder Mystery, Allen switched to his old collaborator and friend, Diane Keaton as costar. It’s not like Allen was going to continue making films with someone falsely accusing him of child abuse (although, amazingly, Farrow expected to continue to star in Allen’s films).
Keaton’s appeal is more obvious to me, but of course Allen couldn’t have cast her in every film. Perhaps Allen admired Farrow’s “nordic” look, as that seems to have been his type for a time. Farrow is a bit fey, and her personal life bears this out.
Husbands and Wives. Directed by Woody Allen. Performances by Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. TriStar Pictures, 1992.
Schickel, Richard. Woody Allen: A Life in Film. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003.
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