When married couple Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) were waiting for their friends Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) to arrive for one of their usual evenings out, they had no idea of the bombshell about to be dropped on them. After chatting briefly, Jack told them there was something they should know before they went to the restaurant: he and Sally were splitting up. There was nothing to be upset about, they averred, they had simply grown apart. But Gabe and Judy were very perturbed by this...
Of course, when Husbands and Wives was released, cinema audiences were not so much interested in what Woody Allen was saying about married relationships in general, and more what he was saying about his own relationship with Farrow. This was the film presented to the public the year the celebrity couple hit the headlines when Allen admitted he was now going out with Farrow's adopted daughter, a scandal which shocked him as to the impact it made on his public image and the amount of criticism he was now receiving - not for his art, but for his private life.
The truth was that while he was had been a well-known celebrity, certainly a very recognisable one, his self-authored films had never really spoken to the mass audience, so while Husbands and Wives benefited from the bad publicity, the number of people who customarily went to see his movies stayed at pretty much the same level. Those hoping for any great insight into the man behind the movies were to be faced with the fact that while he was very sharp in his delineation of the connections between men and women, there was not so much here that revealed the home life of Woody and Mia.
Some read much into the way Gabe and Judy grow apart over the course of the storyline, but separating Allen from his screen persona was always to be troublesome for many viewers, either because they wanted to believe he really was that witty and knowledgable, or due to him not being their cup of tea and the films reinforcing that opinion. Yet when here he was set to wondering just how durable modern marriage was, among the type who peopled in his tales at any rate, the answers he came up with were hardly the stuff of uplifting cinema, even if he did manage to slip quite a few funny lines into the scathing drama, here presented as a documentary to make it look even more authentic - and disorientingly chaotic as we try to find our bearings.
When Jack and Sally make their announcement, it sets their best friends on a path to the destruction of their union, and every character is tempted by another; some will act upon this, others won't (not so much, anyway), but all will leave the drama in some way feeling a lack of something in their lives. Gabe feels a bond with him and one of his students (Juliette Lewis), but when she begins critiquing his novel and pointing out how cynical he is about women, it could almost be Allen talking to himself. Jack does worse, as he gets a two-dimensional airhead (Lysette Anthony) as his new partner, largely a stick figure to beat him with, but Sally and Judy find themselves part of a loose love triangle with Michael (Liam Neeson) from their office as we hear from Judy's ex that she is a classic passive aggressive and will get what she wants whatever happens. Even so, the sense that none of these people will be truly content makes for dispiriting viewing, one which you will reject as the work of a hopeless pessimist, or applaud for his clear-eyed take on the fickleness of modern marriage and the banality of romance.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.