Real Fiction: The Paradox in Woody Allen’s HUSBANDS AND WIVES

29 September 2013

Woody Allen is not a formulaic director.  A few times a little formula may have helped Allen pull off some movie magic, but, for the most part, his adherence to experimentation and his own creative, unique vision has led to a filmography of refreshingly original, entertaining, cinematic experiences. Amongst his most experimental and signature endeavors of the 1990s is Husbands and Wives (1992).

In short, Husbands and Wives is a documentary-style motion picture about two couples, all close friends, living in New York City.  Gabe (Woody Allen) and Judy (Mia Farrow) are seemingly happily married.  Gabe is an English professor and Judy works for a magazine.  Jack (Sydney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) are the other couple, and at the start of the film they announce they will separate.  This separation fuels the film’s narrative drive.  Gabe, then, lives vicariously through Jack’s new relationships with younger women, and even begins an emotional relationship with one of his students, Rain (Juliette Lewis).  Judy panics over Jack and Sally’s separation, desperately trying to protect her own marriage from failure.  She also sets up Sally with one of her colleagues from work, Michael (Liam Neeson), but, in seeing how he and Sally hit it off, immediately becomes jealous and realizes she actually has feelings for Michael.  As Jack and Sally, respectively, mingle with new lovers, Gabe and Judy’s relationship begins to strain.  And, by the conclusion, Jack and Sally decide to reconcile and Gabe and Judy divorce; Gabe ends up alone and Judy ends up with Michael.


Most Woody Allen films have a cinematic hook, some idea, be it narrative or cinematic, which distinguishes the film from others.  In Husbands and Wives the hook is the documentary style the film is told through and the shaky camera used to support the documentary style.  But this cinematic signature is not a flippant choice that serves strictly as visual stimulation.  Through this cinematic hook Woody Allen sets up a paradox in his film; Allen’s documentary style in Husbands and Wives allows the writer/director to make another attempt at something he, as well as mentor Ingmar Bergman, has tried before, capturing real moments in fiction.

Allen seems highly aware of how this paradox plays into Husbands and Wives, and he invites it openly into the film, playing with reality and fiction from start to finish.  At times, the characters are interviewed about their lives and relationships, breaking the fourth wall with the characters aware of the documentary they are in and aware they are being film and, therefore, are being watched by an audience.  This may seem, on the surface, as though this is the film exploring the “real,” the straightforward question and answering.  However, digging deeper, this is actually the film’s exploration of fiction.

When the characters are interviewed the pretense is palpable; in fact, there is nothing real about the content of these documentary style interviews. For example, the final interview of Jack and Sally finds the couple reunited, even interviewed together.  There they sit, their heads cocked in the same direction, fumbling with nonsensical answers to questions that have plagued them throughout the entire film.  In the film’s opening sequence they described the bravery it took them to finally separate, to finally venture out alone and discover themselves and their happiness.  Yet, that bravery seems lost by this concluding interview.  Through their painful and pitiful final interview, it is clear Jack and Sally threw in the towel on bravery and reverted into the safety and comfort of their unsatisfying marriage.


This example highlights how Allen spins fiction in Husbands and Wives because, although it is clear to the audience Jack and Sally accomplished nothing in the film and are back in a doomed marriage, the couple lies about being truly happy to be back together.  Not only are they selling this reunion for the documentary, but they are also talking in circles to convince themselves their recommitment to one another makes each happy.  The entire interview is a lie.  This interview highlights for the audience interviews are all fiction because they only serve to show how people chose to accept their lives, or, put another way, how people chose to spin their own story.


Conversely, in the majority of the film, the characters are filmed through the shaky camera, handheld technique, meaning the camera darts around, with minimal cuts.  Also, the characters seem completely unaware of the camera, and that footage is being collected for the documentary.  To complicate this further, some the action this shaky camera technique captures seems impossible to film for any documentary.  This impossibility may, initially, suggest the non-interview scenes, the shaky camera moments, are the film’s fiction; however, these unbeknownst glimpses into the character’s lives, without their knowledge, are Allen’s truer exploration in what is real in Husbands and Wives.

Take, for example, the scene between Michael and Sally, when the two make love for the first, and last, time.  While the two are intimate with each other, shaky camera captures the action, as though a filmmaker walks around the bed filming freely.  Clearly, this is too intimate a moment for documentary camera.  Furthermore, knowing they type of (neurotic) character Sally is, she would never allow this moment, and the conversation that follows it, to be filmed.


Therefore, the footage the shaky camera contributes to the documentary is the most real footage of in the film.  The shaky camera footage captures unfiltered action.  Evident from the example of Jack and Sally’s final interview, the characters are inhibited, if not completely rehearsed, in the interviews.  Allen counters the restrained interviews with his shaky camera footage, or permission for the audience to see the characters with their guards down, as they truly are. Only during these shaky and intentionally unrefined moments can the audience see something true, something authentic, and something real.

Theoretically, there is not real, and, even if there were, the real cannot have a place in fiction, which, by its own definition, is invention.  Unfortunately for Allen, narrative cinema is fiction.  However, fortunately for moviegoers, Allen avoids those formulaic films and opens his mind to creative, original ideas on confronting the cinematic paradox between the real and fiction.  Husbands and Wives is one such idea.  In full ownership of the fiction, Allen arrives at something real in this film, in a way only and auteur like himself would be able to.



~ by Kate Bellmore on 29/09/2013.

2 Responses to “Real Fiction: The Paradox in Woody Allen’s HUSBANDS AND WIVES”

  1. I got here by searching “who is doing the interviews in Husbands and Wives,” but somehow I had not noticed the whole thing is shot in documentary style, so thanks for clearing that up. I guess it doesn’t matter who is doing them, or it’s no one/just a device to make a point.

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