FILM / Two's a crowd: Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives reviewed

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The puppet-master makes his familiar gestures, but in the black light of media attention the strings fluoresce, and it's impossible not to follow them up to those dancing fingers, and to ask: what was he thinking of, when he made them do that? Is this the equivalent, in terms of Woody Allen's longstanding reputation, of a suicide note?

Husbands and Wives (15) is a film destined to be much watched and little seen. The eruption of the private relationship of Allen and Mia Farrow into the headlines means that any new film of his not set on the planet Zog, let alone one starring Farrow as a dissatisfied wife and Allen himself as her husband, tempted by attraction to a very much younger woman, is bound to be watched with tabloid eyes. The statutory ironies of a Woody Allen film can only be drowned out by the clangour of scandal. Watching the film is like trying to listen to a music box during a bell-ringing contest.

The first sign of unease is its technique. From the first scene onwards, the camera work is self- advertisingly amateurish. Every last pan and zoom is exaggeratedly hand-held. In some later sequences, the characters of the film speak directly to camera, wearing visible microphones to answer the questions posed by a neutral voice, whose owner is never shown. And yet in the scenes where the characters aren't addressing the camera, there is no suggestion that there is someone really there, an incarnation of the awkward camera work - a film student, perhaps, crouching between the participants in an intimate scene, intercepting their tender glances.

Pseudo-documentary is inherently a callow device, a way of hedging your bets by putting an entire movie in quotation marks (see Bob Roberts), marks that will be removed only if the audience takes it all seriously. In Husbands and Wives it's only half a device in the first place. Why would a director of Woody Allen's experience resort to it at all? The reason must be that he felt a need to create some artificial distance in a movie that was in other ways close to home. The insistent bumpiness of the images gives the film a roughness quite inappropriate to its actual tone, its troubled suavity.

If Husbands and Wives is a self- exculpatory film, it isn't transparently so. In the scenes where Judy, the character played by Mia Farrow, voices her doubts about her marriage to Gabe (Woody Allen), text is necessarily swamped by subtext, sense by hindsight, but a fairminded viewer will not experience the film as one side of a family quarrel. The character Allen plays, though a novelist, is clearly autobiographical to some degree (he even has to put up with fans praising his early, funny work, a routine Allen martyrdom) but as a screenwriter he has worked hard to come up with a satisfactory structure. If there is self-exculpation here, it isn't the brazen sort that comes right out and says, 'I'm innocent,' but the more subtle, even philosophical sort that says, 'No one is innocent, ever.'

In Husbands and Wives two marriages are under scrutiny, not one. Judy and Gabe have been together 10 years: children are still a possibility, at least in Judy's mind. Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) have been married much longer, and have grown-up children. In each case, the husband is attracted to a woman of a younger generation - Gabe to a promising student in his creative writing class, Jack to his aerobics trainer - but guilt is not quite one-sided. It turns out that Sally knew of an earlier infidelity of Jack's, and chose to keep silent, partly in the hope that it would go away, and partly because the break-up of her marriage was in some way a liberating prospect. Judy Davis is an actress of something close to genius, excelling particularly at torment with overtones of comedy - if she never plays Hedda Gabler, we'll all be the poorer.

Judy, meanwhile, is accused of being passive-aggressive - the psychological term for people who work indirectly to get what they want though they will never admit it - by her first husband, speaking directly to camera. Charges of passive-aggression are all but impossible to rebut; if you contest them, you are in denial. If they had only had the nous to say 'the serpent was passive-aggressive, and we did eat,' Adam and Eve might still be in the garden. Here perhaps lies the real reason behind the botched device of the pseudo-documentary: it makes it possible for the Mia Farrow character to be denounced for manipulativeness by an apparently authoritative source. No other character has a hostile witness of this sort.

But if the treatment of the Mia Farrow character is possibly a betrayal, or a rehearsal for betrayal, a series of feints whose wounds are felt only later, it is mild indeed by Hollywood standards. It is far outweighted by Allen's gallantry in showing his expanding bald spot to the camera, while Farrow looks as delicate as ever. Her style of elfin good looks should have become gratingly little-girlish with the years, particularly as her vocal inflections tend towards the plaintive, but her charm is not yet forfeit. There has always been a shortage of eligible men as opposed to desirable women in Woody Allen's films, and the closer his films have come to fantasy autobiography (witness Hannah and her Sisters) the more pronounced has been the shortage. Perhaps it is appropriate that the two wives in this new film should have to share an extra-marital love interest (Liam Neeson).

Of the desirable women, Lysette Anthony plays perhaps the only innocent character and also the one who has nothing to offer beyond her desirability - the aerobics instructor. Jack's marital crisis is pure midlife brainstorm. Juliette Lewis plays the talented writing student, who is anything but innocent. She has been involved with three older men before, to Gabe's knowledge (the third being her analyst), and Gabe, however regretfully, turns her down.

In a sense, Woody Allen lets himself off the hook by having his character hold back from adultery, and even seem the victim of Mia Farrow's character. But this is not a smug movie, and much the better for it. Allen's career has progressed rather oddly from the angst-ridden shtick of his early films to middle-weight morality plays full of dropped names and philosophising. Sometimes it seemed that he affected dark clothes because they looked good on Fyodor and Ingmar: but Dostoevsky and Bergman are only name-checks in Husbands and Wives. Allen no longer wants to wear the seven-league boots of existentialism. His subject is no longer Being and Nothingness, Love, Death or Guilt, just uncapitalised unease, the unease of someone just beginning to wonder if he's quite as nice as everybody, including him, has ever thought.

(Photograph omitted)

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