No Woody Alien film runs its course without at least one good quip on its sound track. Judy Davis gets to deliver a great one in Husbands and Wives when, as a middle-aged woman newly separated from her husband and trying to reenter the dating game, she fends off the advances of an aspiring lover with the plea that he's coming on to her too fast: "Metabolically, it's not my rhythm," And Davis's delivery is so cleverly shaded, so tremulous yet incisive, that Allen's mockery of listento-your-body newspeak seems as witty as a line from Congreve or Wilde.
Yet what's remarkable about Allen's latest effort is that so little of it depends upon his talent for such quips or for language in general. In fact, though the script tours familiar Allen territory--the anguished love lives of successful professionals living in or near Manhattan--its method is a true departure for Allen. In all his previous features, good or bad, the emotions of his characters registered primarily through the dialogue, and the dialogue was written and delivered in the basic theatrical mode that prevails both in plays and movies: linear, pregnant with meaning and wit, and necessarily more lucid and emphatic than 99.5 percent of the talk we hear in everyday life. And such dialogue, on screen or stage, is a major determinant of what the director does. In all previous Allen movies, the dialogue determined whether the camera should be near or far, still or mobile.
Not so in Husbands and Wives. First, despite the occasional witty exchange, most of the dialogue is loaded with the trivialities, the nonsequiturs, the fruitless excursions away from the main point, the interruptions and self-interruptions we hear in everyday life and in documentaries. The actors have been directed not only to overlap their lines but often to speak all at once, to trail off in midsentence, to take little pauses in unexpected places, to replace intended words with glances that preempt words. All this brings us much closer to the jagged discourse of cinema verite than to the lucid volleying of comedy. The bon mot and the riposte have been devalued; what counts in this movie is the tangle, the buzz, the blur of heated arguments in expensive apartments where nobody listens to anybody except to refute what's just been said. The camera isn't cued by words but by currents of feeling.
Second, much of the camerawork (by Carlo di Palina) is handheld, constantly mobile, deliberately shaky. Even if the acting and dialogue were more conventional, such photography would destabilize them.
Third, borrowing from Jean Luc-Goddard, Allen interrupts his narrative several times to have his characters interviewed by an unidentified interrogator on the other side of the camera. This strategy contributes to giving Husbands and Wives the texture of a case study, a documentary in the making.
Does the method match the matter? The story is a symmetrical one: one married pair, Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis, announce their septration to their friends, Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, a seemingly stable couple. By the end of the movie, Pollack and Davis have learned they can't live without each other while Farrow and Allen, their long-suppressed differences and hostilities shaken to the surface by the discord between their friends, divorce. Another director, Eric Rohmer, say, might have accentuated the formal simplicity …