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Judy Davis Film Festival: Husbands and Wives

JW and I decided to cut to the chase and go right to the first movie that comes to mind when I think of Judy Davis, the under-appreciated Woody Allen movie Husbands and Wives.

It seems more significant now than it did when I originally saw it. This may be because it stands head and shoulders over To Rome With Love, so fresh in my memory and such a comparative trifle. No matter, I’ve decided that it’s up there with top-tier Allen; it’s formally distinctive, raw, and often painfully funny. You should check it out if you haven’t seen it lately.

I remember seeing Husbands and Wives as a teen when it came out and finding it repellent. And it’s not an easy movie at any age. Its faux-documentary experimentation still comes off as abrasive at times. The whole movie is just so brown, too; everyone’s in these drab sweaters, and New York has never looked sadder or droopier in his films than in this one. The unfortunate timing of its release didn’t help either, when he was being vilified in the press and everyone saw the movie as a commentary on the collapse of his personal life.

Watching it last night, I was pretty stunned. It’s astounding the jarring liberties he takes with the documentary-style approach. I know he wasn’t the first person to do it, but this was before we’ve become so numbed by the era of the slick handheld gimmickry of shows like The Office, where it’s all style and no resonance. In Husbands and Wives, on at least one occasion a character shifts mid-monologue from an intense personal argument to look directly at the interviewer (and the camera). It’s a shocking, powerful trick. It also accentuates the theme of marriage-as-performance. It’s something that’s part of the film’s larger preoccupation with perceptions — about the opposite sex, the object of one’s affection, the object of one’s desire, one’s marriage, other people’s marriages. And so on.

As we were walking out of To Rome With Love, JW mentioned that Ellen Page was essentially playing Barbara Hershey’s role in Hannah and Her Sisters. It’s a reasonable comparison, but what struck me the most was how lop-sided the film is toward the men in the picture. Page was not given anywhere near the material Hershey was. They’re very different pictures, but it’s nice that Hannah and company are deemed important enough to get the title of theirs. And while the women share the title of Husbands and Wives with the men, they sure are given more dimension than any of the major actresses he cast in To Rome with Love.

I could focus on To Rome‘s weaknesses, but as with Allen’s lighter fare, it announces itself so immediately and warmly as such that it seems beside the point. I do think it’s fair to say that he’s written better female characters than those in that movie, even if he’s able to cast Judy Davis to mesmerize the audience into not caring that much.

Take by contrast, Husbands and Wives, which has three killer roles for Davis, Mia Farrow (who plays another Hannah here, although not a thankless variation), and Juliette Lewis. Even Lysette Anthony’s character (Sydney Pollack’s younger bimbo girlfriend) is treated with empathy. It’s so unsettling when he drags her out of that party more or less kicking and screaming. She might be ridiculous but she doesn’t deserve that.

One could argue the movie offers a caustic attitude about its women. But I think that attitude comes less from the movie and more from the movie’s heterosexual males. And all of them are frumpy, unattractive middle-aged men complaining about their passive-aggressive, sexually frigid, or otherwise remote spouses. The only guy who gets even the slightest pass is Liam Neeson. Handsome as he is, he still can’t stop himself from collapsing into a pathetic obsession with Judy Davis. Meanwhile she couldn’t send him more negative vibes.

Still, the women don’t fare all that much better in their presentation. Davis is funny and fantastic and looks amazing in her perfect lipstick and Elaine Benes hair, but that doesn’t make her character any less insufferable. My favorite line she has is to Liam Neeson, who she invites in for a drink. She yawns and then reassures him with something like, “Oh I’m not tired! I’m just hyper-oxygenating because the car ride made me a little sick.”

I wanted to find a clip of her in the movie, but I think one of the best scenes to talk about, particularly in the film’s depiction of women, is a scene in a cab with Juliette Lewis. She’s a young, budding novelist and she’s just read the new manuscript of her mentor, played by Allen, who’s become infatuated with her.

Two things are remarkable to me here. One is obvious — even as Allen becomes more upset, calling her a twit and swearing at her, the camera never gives him any attention. It’s all about her as she lets him have it for how badly his male protagonist misperceives the women in his life. How it’s beneath him. The other is the final exchange between the two:

Allen: I’d hate to be your boyfriend! He must go through hell.
Lewis: Yeah, well I’m worth it.

She is, of course. And if pressed I think Allen, and all the rest of them, would agree.