As Woody Allen grew older, so too did his onscreen persona, and, necessarily, so too did the characters inhabiting his films. Although HUSBANDS & WIVES is not the first of his films to explore the personal lives of the middle-aged (SEPTEMBER, CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS, ANOTHER WOMAN), it is certainly the best to do so, and probably his best film of the decade.

      The story centres on two couples, expanding to include their various love interests: Sally (JUDY DAVIS) and Jack (SYDNEY POLLACK) appear to their friends to be happily married, and have been for 15 years, but in the first scene we learn that they’re unhappy together, and have decided to split. Their friends Gabe and Judy Roth (WOODY ALLEN and MIA FARROW) are shocked and upset, the split appearing for them completely out of the blue. Judy introduces Sally to a colleague of hers named Michael (LIAM NEESON); Jack begins to date his aerobics instructor Sam (LYSETTE ANTHONY), reveling in her unrefined simplicity of character, a sharp contrast to Sally’s detached coldness; and Woody Allen, in the guise of “Gabe Roth, university professor,” is his usual ineffably-charming self. He begins spending time with a student of his named Rain (JULIETTE LEWIS); he’s enamored with her writing, and she idolizes him.

      All of these things are filmed as cinema verite, captured by a documentary crew that happened to be present at every moment in all of the characters’ lives. It’s not that difficult a stretch of the imagination, and through the device of interviews conducted after the events portrayed, Woody is able to psychoanalyze his characters to an extent unsurpassed in all his career. As they talk about the events set in motion by Jack and Sally’s separation, they recall more and more bahaviour of their partners, and themselves, that is indicative of unhappiness in their relationships. Woody also uses the same device to its full benefit as a structural aid: we are introduced to a new setting, and the character on focus free associates about how they feel about it, and then, knowing and understanding their thought process, we are taken through the scene. All of the nuances, from the observational camera to Rain and Sally’s sometimes snotty, brattish tones, are carefully inserted and serve the film’s purpose, which is to give as complete an insight into these made-up characters’ psychology. The resolution is predictable and recalls some of his earlier films (CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS), but it’s justified, and satisfying in how much sense it makes after plumbing the depths of these peoples’ psychology.

      As in everything he writes, the film is saturated in Woody Allen. Through the Woody Allen character, we are afforded glimpses of his neurotic tendencies: the story of Rain’s romantic history is utter, utter self-parody. What sets HUSBANDS & WIVES apart from his mileau, apart even from the three or four of his other films that are extremely similar to it, is the hand of a master, clearly evident in the completeness of the film’s execution, and the clarity of his vision in doing so.