"Life doesn't imitate art, it imitates bad television."
The 90's were a surprisingly introspective era, taking a step back from the conservative excess of the Reagan Era and turning within. Along for that journey is the always introspective Woody Allen, whose films in the 80's had made him a national icon. Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days and The Purple Rose of Cairo were Allen operating at his most operatically bittersweet, and the 90's initially looked to be more of the same.
That's before his unbelievably messy breakup with Mia Farrow, who found nude photos of her 21 year old stepdaughter who then-boyfriend Allen had taken. The scandal lingered on the tabloids for years, and its impact ruined the director's reputation in many circles.
What's remarkable about this, besides the uncanny underlying oedipal undertones, is that Allen had been shooting a movie that portrayed a nasty breakup between a couple resulting from indiscretions. Who played the leads? Woody Allen and Mia Farrow. How does their film marriage dissolve? Woody meets a young girl and falls for her. Yikes.
Allen always tries to keep the autobiographical out of his films, but Husbands and Wives can't help but feel like a peek between the bedsheets. The film delves into the stylishness of divorce, the deep seated feelings of desire versus reality, and how a seemingly healthy union can turn out to be nothing but a paper doll.
How does this film exemplify the 90's?
"Being with you must be hell!"
"... But I'm worth it."
I will readily admit, I didn't pick something that represented the zeitgeist of 90's dramas as something like The Piano or Shakespeare in Love surely would, but I think Husbands and Wives represents something much more important in terms of an artist's career, and I will admit I care more about that career than practically any overdone costume drama Miramax pumped out in that decade.
That being said, the movie's look is ahead of its time. Filmed in a pseudo documentary format, a lot of what you'll see in prime time today on "The Office", "Parks and Recreation", or any other dozen shows that are aiming for a reality bent. This rather daring choice also heightens the films sense of blurring the line between the reality of what soon happened to Allen's life to what happened on the screen.
It's a weird blurring of fiction and reality, something you'll see a lot of narrative films from this decade take hold of, from Ed TV to Being John Malkovich. This would become a bigger thing in the latter 00's, particularly with the aforementioned TV shows and horror films of the "found footage" genre, but Husbands and Wives uses it to transpose a narrative sense of urgency and antipathy.
What makes this my pick?
"What happened after the honeymoon? Did desire grow or did familiarity make partners want other lovers? Was the notion of ever-deepening romance a myth along with simultaneous orgasm?"
Husbands and Wives, besides predicting the voyeurism that would engulf the 21st century and, ironically, itself being intrinsically voyeuristic in ways wholly unintentional when it was being created, is also a fascinating document the idea of human mating. If Annie Hall is about the two lovers who don't end up together but the joys they experienced during that brief affair, Husbands and Wives is about two groups of people who are sucking the marrow out of their last yearnings for life and what manner of wide eyed desperation that yields.
It's a sad, pathetic, and unabashedly raw film, and one of those great movies whose style perfectly captures the messiness of the story its telling. This makes the film incredibly dense, as its documentary aspects blend with the impossible and the fantastical. Another layer finishes the picture, and that's the book Allen's character is writing about his own musings on love and reproduction. Is this subversive, a potshot at academics who read only misery into procreation, or an unyielding look into Allen's own views?
I've been careful not to spoil the characters or plots in this review, not because they're a cheesy mystery, but because their actions and moments are unyielding in their complexity, layered perhaps more than anyone outside of Allen's mind can know or understand. Watching this film urges a deconstruction and begs for an analysis. This movie can and should be looked at over again and again in the mind's eye, like a jewel.