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Husbands

(John Cassavetes, USA, 1970)


 


Husbands is a fascinating prelude to the work of Abel Ferrara, so many years ahead of its time: the quality of headlong narrative without exposition, with astounding, unannounced ellipses (where Cassavetes' wife comes to give them the plane passports, for instance); the visual and aural sense of being inside each event as it happens, everything in partial views, shards of space and time, time-images and crystals (such great and dynamic camera work with the camera trying to follow action but not always containing it in frame: strange, sudden lacks and elisions); the absolute, deliberate lack of, or refusal of, a moral perspective on such extreme human (mainly male) behaviour, no point or conclusion to be drawn.

This is the blackest, most misanthropic of all Cassavetes' films. There's no love in it – mainly because there are no wife/lover female figures in it. This shows only one side of his feminine universe: the lonely, driven, haunted, melancholic women of the one night stand circuit, the 'night women' of bars and hotels ...

Absolutely quintessential Cassavetes scene: the morning after the men's separate liaisons with women, Cassavetes and then Falk in the rain with their women, satellites spinning apart, not having understood each other or connected much at all. Complete with the Asian girl who suddenly speaks up for the first time, muttering in her own tongue.

Husbands is a very intense film about hysteria: about how easy it is, when facing the alienness of any Other, to push their wrong buttons. Hysteria always looms. A comic scene exists seemingly to state this: a crazy bit with the woman convulsing hysterically with fear in Cassavetes' dentist chair. Not to mention the truly remarkable scene between him and Jenny Runacre the morning after: incredible spins from hopeful intimacy to total hysteria in her, prompted by his cold and cutting remarks. And the finale: Nick Cassavetes as screaming, obnoxious, hysterical little kid

These guys are such an unlovely, repressed, ugly bunch – especially Falk and Gazzara (well used in his stolidity). Only Cassavetes himself approaches charm, but he blows it bad with Runacre. These men endlessly perform some monstrous image of who they are, what they're feeling, who they should be, what they should be feeling. And this is not such a simple alienation, for the only human, interpersonal, behavioural reality here seems to be this multi-layered performance of veils, feints, masks, try-outs: like in Falk's bathroom monologue: "What was I feeling, what was it?"; or both Cassavetes and Gazzara repeating in their pick-ups "aren't I charming?" It is this very quality of rapping the self in an endless, exteriorised performance which seems so ahead of its time, straight into the era of Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson and many others.

There is an indelibly strong element of the grotesque – particularly with some of the women (some of the guys ain't too pretty either), such as the incredible old woman who desires Falk. Hervé Le Roux (Cahiers du cinéma no. 389, November 1986), describes the women of the film as "monsters ... a giant, a deformed woman, a gnome ... Husbands is the encounter of the imperfect, bad smelling bodies of men, fleeing everything, with woman-monsters ". Which makes it sound a bit like a Stephen Dwoskin film like Times For (1970) – and wasn't Runacre in that?

There are relentless scenes of behavioural sadism: particularly the long scene of drinking and singing (even this has striking ellipses of key moments not seen or heard, some violent sections). Le Roux takes the violent demand of a woman to "be truthful" as the emblem of the film and its own relentless method, a sadistic tracking to capture the truth. But I am not so sure about this; Carney remarks (in one of his rare moments of insight) that the film is not about unmitigated freedom but the very problem of being free, of free expression.

The mise en scène of certain scenes stays with me forever. Like the fantastic relations of foreground and background in wide shot during the hotel scene: Gazzara in bed at the front moving about, Falk in the middle of the shot with the Asian girl, Cassavetes and Runacre going in and out of room in the background.

Or like the amazing, almost psychotic scene of domestic violence where Gazzara whacks his wife and step mother. It hits an intense level of melodrama, almost surreal as wife's knife appears in shot, as everything escalates. In a nutshell, it's a Cassavetes diagram of the hysterical push and pull of attraction and repulsion, sadism and masochism in marital relationships.

MORE Cassavetes: Faces, Minnie and Moskowitz

© Adrian Martin May 1994


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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