Philosophical Films:

"Husbands and Wives"


Philosophical Connection

Modern Times, Nine1/2 Weeks, She's Got to Have It, Play It Again, Sam, Educating Rita, Network, and Koyaanisqatsi all have to do with the philosophical problem of Self-determination (Autonomy); they all show significant aspects of the it. Husbands and Wives does the same, and it does so (as Sander Lee shows), in terms of Sartre's early Existentialism. Every character, and every episode of the story, can be read as an exemplification of personal autonomy or the lack of it.

The story begins with the breakup of a marriage, and it ends with the "happy" reunification of the couple after a series of more or less "romantic" encounters of the estranged spouses. At the beginning the spouses state that meaning, passion, and sexual pleasures have gone out of their union, and that they would be better off if they opened themselves up to new possibilities. At the end they state that the above conjugal deficits do not really matter, and that the security, comfort, and predictability of a common and unromantic household are the best that a mature person can expect from life: "Marriage is a buffer against loneliness."

Such a choice of security over the openness and angst of truly unencumbered persons is, of course, a paradigm case of "bad faith," of an inauthentic existence, in the book of Existentialist ethics. Particularly Sartrean Existentialists insist that a genuinely mature adult respect the radical autonomy in oneself as well as in others. The above couple (Jack and Sally) agree to reimpose the traditional restrictions of a monogamous relationship on themselves in order to avoid the unpleasant feelings that they experienced during their short period of being on their own. Control--the absolute opposite of autonomy--is at the heart of their desires and conjugal happiness. For being away from their spouse as such did not bother them particularly. What incited their strong feelings was their discovery that their ex-spouse could find an apparent happiness with other partners. This jealousy, not love, brings the couple together at the end, and provides the film with a traditional, but reekingly false happy ending.

Sander Lee's following essay (published in Film and Philosophy) delves into the intricacies of deception and self-deception presented in Woody Allen's film:


Sartrean Themes in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives

by Sander Lee

Throughout his career, Woody Allen has repeatedly explored issues relating to the difficulties of romantic love. In Husbands and Wives (1992), Allen presents us with a pessimistic view of romantic love and marriage which clearly mirrors that of Jean-Paul Sartre's discussions of this topic in his essay The Emotions: Outline of a Theory and in Being and Nothingness. As in his other films, Allen peppers his audience with clues and references which help us to identify the theories he is using. In this case, our first clue comes at the film's beginning when we see Judy Roth (Mia Farrow) holding a book with Sartre's name emblazoned on its cover. Later, Jack (Sydney Pollack) mentions Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre's lifelong companion and collaborator. Additionally, at two points in the film, there is explicit discussion of the desire of Woody Allen's character, Gabe Roth, to move to Paris where he would like to live in a small apartment and spend his days writing at a table in a cafe, just the lifestyle traditionally associated with Sartre. While these clues may initially seem trivial, they grow in significance as one comes to discover the many similarities in the positions held by Allen and Sartre on the issues of love and marriage.

It is in his films of hopelessness (e.g., Stardust Memories, The Purple Rose of Cairo, September, and Husbands and Wives) that Allen's perspective appears to be most in accordance with that of Sartre. For Sartre, both love and sexual desire fail for basically the same reason. They fail, as do all patterns of conduct towards the other, because they attempt to simultaneously capture the other-as-subject and as-object. This is something which cannot be done. Thus, Sartre claims that emotional consciousness is a degradation of consciousness because it is in bad faith.It is always ineffectual because it is always attempting to be something it knows it cannot be. Sartre would not deny that many people very highly value emotional goals in their lives. However, Sartre would state that to the extent a person chooses to devote himself or herself to an emotional goal, that person can accurately be said to be in bad faith.

For Sartre, relationships of love and sex are always battlegrounds in which the two combatants vie for dominance over the other. In fact, he contends that in every such relationship, one person ends up controlling the other. Using the disagreeable terminology of bondage, Sartre says that in every relationship, one person plays the role of the "sadist," while the other is the "masochist." The relationships likely to endure for the longest time are those in which the roles of each of the participants have long ago been defined and accepted.

Thus, if Allen is indeed basing his portrayal of love, sex, and marriage on this aspect of Sartre's theory, then we should expect to see a group of people hypocritically battling one another for dominance in their relationships, while also pursuing the "magical fantasy" of possessing, either romantically or sexually (or both), the partner of their dreams. And, in fact, that is exactly what we do see. In the film, two married couples are shown going through the traumas of separation. The relationships within each couple are characterized by vicious power struggles in which each person fights to impose his/her interpretation of reality onto the other. All four individuals experiment with outside lovers in the attempt to create new romantic ties which would allow each to pursue the goal of complete domination over another person. Eventually, one character, Judy Roth (Mia Farrow), destroys her relationship with her husband Gabe Roth (Woody Allen), a successful and self-confident writer, so that she may marry Michael (Liam Neeson), a weaker and needier person, because she can more easily dominate him.

The other couple, Sally (Judy Davis) and Jack (Sydney Pollack), reconcile even though they acknowledge that they have not resolved their many problems. They admit that they have reunited primarily because they each fear loneliness in their old age and are willing to choose security over romantic fulfillment. Gabe, ultimately the saddest of the characters, writes a novel in which he portrays love and marriage as a choice between "chronic dissatisfaction and suburban drudgery." Although he flirts throughout the film with one of the students in his writing class (a twenty-year-old woman with a history of failed affairs with older men), by the film's end he refuses to become involved with her because of his realization of the doomed nature of the relationship (and, indeed, of all relationships from the Sartrean perspective which Allen adopts in this film). In the film's final scene, Gabe describes his feelings about himself and his relationships to an interviewer who appears to be making a remarkably incompetent documentary on the subject:

Gabe: Ah, you know, I'm out of the race at the moment. I don't want to get involved with anybody, I don't want to hurt anyone, I don't want to get hurt, I just, you know, I just don't mind, you know, living by myself and working, you know, it's temporary, I mean the feelings will pass, and then I'll have the urge to get back into the swing of things, but, that seems to be how it goes . . .

In this depressing fashion, the film ends in a freezeframe of Gabe's face as we see the credits and hear again the rendition of "What Is This Thing Called Love?" which opened it. With its fake documentary structure, and its scenes of intimacy which we know could not be included in any real documentary, the film superficially resembles Jean Resnais' 1980 Mon Oncle d'Amerique, in which the director uses a similar technique to illustrate the theories of human behavior developed by a French research scientist (Henri Laborit). That film also follows a group of characters into intimate situations in order to convince us of the validity of the deterministic theory of human behavior, which it appears to embrace.

In one hilarious scene in that film, we hear a narrator explaining the causes of several characters' behavior as we see white rats re- enacting scenes that originally had human characters. However, Allen's film differs from that of Resnais' in that his documentary makers never reveal the theory, if any, upon which they are basing their study; nor does their understanding or expertise (they can't even videotape properly without jerking the camera around) seem equipped to handle the behavior of the very complex individuals that they have chosen to study. Right from the beginning, we have no confidence in their ability to explain anything to us, and so, at the film's conclusion, we are not especially surprised when their project seems to have been abandoned because of their lack of insight, and their inability to deal effectively with the pain they are recording. Allen clearly believes that no social scientists, no matter how efficient or well-trained, can effectively reduce the mysteries of love and marriage into statistical data which yield objective answers.

What answers we do get, such as they are, are in accordance with Sartre's pessimistic views, although Allen works hard to let us know, both in the taxicab scene with Rain, and in Gabe's final statements, that he recognizes that these views could be criticized from a variety of perspectives. He acknowledges that he may be trivializing dilemmas which in fact offer us much more complex choices than he shows us; and he concedes that his perspective may justifiably offend feminists. He even tells us, through Gabe, that he knows he is probably just going through a bad period in his life, and that, eventually, he will feel the old juices flowing again and his attitudes towards love will swing back in a more positive direction.

Interestingly, many of these same qualifications can be ascribed to Sartre's own theories on love and sex. As we have mentioned, all of Sartre's positions on these issues are to be found in two early works, specifically his brief essay from the nineteen-thirties called The Emotions: Outline of a Theory, and in sections of Being and Nothingness, written during the Nazi occupation of France in the forties. Many observers, myself included, have made the case that in these works, Sartre was not describing the full range of human possibilities, but instead only the common patterns of behavior of those who have chosen to operate in bad faith.<1>

In fact, unless one comes to this conclusion, then one is compelled not only to view Sartre as an unrelenting pessimist on the issue of love and sex, but also on the fundamental questions of morality and political responsibility as well, for in these works he never actually describes what authentic moral or political actions would be like, leaving some detractors to conclude that Sartre believed that all of us are condemned to be in bad faith all of the time no matter what our intentions are or how we choose to behave.

But such a deterministic scenario would belie Sartre's entire enterprise, in which he stresses the fundamental ontological freedom which characterizes the human condition and our individual responsibility for the choices we make. If all choices were equally inauthentic from a Sartrean perspective, then life on earth would be no different than the hell which Sartre portrays in his play No Exit. While some of his critics might be glad to come to just such a conclusion, there are ample reasons not to do so. Without going into lengthy arguments based on the entirety of Sartre's work, in which he frequently exhorts his readers to seek authenticity by becoming engaged, that is, committed to a set of values and projects for which one should be willing to sacrifice all; instead we will simply examine one bit of the evidence which refutes the claims of such critics.

At the end of his section on bad faith in Part One of Being and Nothingness, in which Sartre demonstrates the ontological identity of many aspects of good and bad faith, as well as the important differences between this distinction and that which opposes morality to immorality, Sartre presents a footnote which contains an essential clue concerning his position on this issue. In this footnote, he states:

If it is indifferent whether one is in good or in bad faith, because bad faith reapprehends good faith and slides to the very origin of the project of good faith, that does not mean that we can not radically escape bad faith. But this supposes a self-recovery of being which was previously corrupted. This self-recovery we shall call authenticity, the description of which has no place here. (Sartre, 1971, p. 116).

In this note, Sartre suggests both that authenticity is possible, and that this work is not, in his view, the appropriate place to discuss it. The only plausible reason for excluding the obviously crucial discussion of the characteristics of authenticity "here" (in this work), would be that Sartre indeed considers Being and Nothingness to be a description exclusively of inauthentic modes of existence. In his notorious, and brief (only thirteen pages), conclusion to the book in which he examines the metaphysical and ethical implications of his work, Sartre confirms that he has not yet explored these issues in the detail which they deserve, and, in the last line of the book, he promises to do so in "a future work," a work which, of course, he never published.

In other words, if we take Sartre's account of love and sex in his early works to be accounts of those activities only as they are practiced inauthentically, then the possibility of more positive, and authentic, Sartrean models for such activities remains. Furthermore, although they may have disagreed on numerous issues, it is significant that Simone de Beauvoir clearly expressed her view, in The Second Sex, for example, that what she calls "genuine love" can exist, and she describes it this way: Genuine love ought to be founded on mutual recognition of two liberties; the lovers would then experience themselves both as self and as other; neither would give up transcendence, neither would be mutilated; together they would manifest values and aims in the world. For the one and the other, love would be a revelation of self by the gift of self and enrichment of the world. (de Beauvoir, 1953, p. 667).

Given all these qualifications to the views of both Sartre and Allen, there seems no point in presenting arguments here which challenge Sartre's gloomy approach as it is presented in this film, although many exist to be made.<2> Instead, we will briefly explore one apparent contradiction between Allen's views as they have been expressed repeatedly in earlier films, and the position which he seems to take here.

In his earlier films, Allen has always seemed to take the position that in the internal battle that takes place within each of us between our reason and our emotions, feelings are always of the greatest significance. There exists a common misperception of Allen as someone who insists on an over-intellectualization of life's concerns. Yet, those characters with whom he most clearly identifies are always to be found arguing against too great a reliance on the demands of reason as opposed to those of the heart.

Again and again, Allen pokes fun at those who (like Mary in Manhattan, Leopold in A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, Frederick in Hannah and her Sisters, Lloyd in September, or the Doctor in Shadows and Fog) insist on engaging in endless intellectualizing of life's concerns, while, for the most part, ignoring the power of their strongest emotional intuitions. Perhaps Isaac Davis in Manhattan expressed this point best when he told Mary in the planetarium that "nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind. Everything valuable has to enter you through a different opening."

Thus, it is surprising to find Allen in this film apparently agreeing with a Sartrean approach on love and sex which is, as we have seen, grounded in Sartre's claim that the choice to enter the magical realm of the emotions is always in bad faith. This is particularly surprising given the fact that the greatest flaw in Sartre's published position is exactly the point which Allen has made so often in the past, namely that the structure of the universe, as it can be understood using the tools of human reason, does not seem to be compatible with the goals of human happiness.

Therefore, Allen has always contended that if we choose to favor the demands of logic over our emotions, we resign ourselves to lives of meaninglessness and futility. This is why Allen has Sol declare, in Crimes and Misdemeanors, that if given the choice between the truth and God (spiritual fulfillment), he would take God over the truth every time! It is also this realization which leads Louis Levy to declare in his final voiceover in the same film that:

It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy, from simple things like the family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.

There is one last point to be made about Husbands and Wives. Of all of its characters, in my view, Sally stands out as the most fascinating, complex, and real. This is partially because of the brilliant performance given by Judy Davis; but it is also because in writing and directing her character, Allen has gone further than ever before in constructing a character who is a woman with a full identity of her own, one who in no way can be construed simply as a female version of himself.

This is why it is particularly interesting to find Allen introducing Isaiah Berlin's distinction between the hedgehog and the fox in Sally's voice. In an interview scene, the inept narrator demonstrates his lack of understanding of what his subjects are really feeling by asking Sally why she thinks she was able to have an orgasm with Michael but not with Jack. Sally responds by correcting him and saying she didn't have an orgasm with Michael either. When he asks her why not, she says that, although she enjoyed Michael's lovemaking more than Jack's, she couldn't relax sufficiently because her mind was racing. In response to the question of what she was thinking about, she says that he would laugh if she told him what she was really thinking about. When he insists on knowing, she says:

I thought that I liked what Michael was doing to me and it felt different from Jack, and more exciting. And I thought how different Michael was from Jack, how much deeper his vision of life was. And I thought Michael was a hedgehog and Jack was a fox. And I thought Judy was a fox and Gabe was a hedgehog. And I thought of all the people I knew and which were hedgehogs and which were foxes . . .

She goes on to categorize all of her friends and acquaintances using Isaiah Berlin's famous distinction while Michael finishes his lovemaking. As she lays in Michael's arms afterward, he honestly tells her that he could feel that she was a bit distant. Rather than acknowledging what we know to be the truth, she at first pretends to have enjoyed every second of it, and then becomes very defensive as she reminds him of her problems in bed with Jack. He attempts to soothe her and say how wonderful everything was, but she now feels it necessary to torture both of them over the separateness of their respective experiences. Michael admits he can see why Jack was driven a bit crazy, a comment which only upsets Sally even more. Here we see the downside of Michael's honesty from Sally's perspective. Because of his commitment to revealing all of his feelings, he makes no attempt to pretend that everything is all right when he knows that it isn't. While this attitude may be admirable, given Sally's extreme vulnerability, his expectations are more than she can take.

By her unwillingness to allow herself to become submerged in the magical spell of sexual desire, as Sartre has described it, Sally chooses (at some level of her consciousness) to retain not only her ontological separateness, but her power over herself. While this means giving up the pleasure of sex, it also allows her to retain her authority over herself and her domination of all the events in which she engages. Yet, she is clearly conflicted internally by her decision and no doubt consciously wishes to reverse it. Ideally, what she would really prefer would be the ability to have it all, to enjoy the pleasures of sex while simultaneously retaining her sense of complete control and her critical faculties.

However, for Sartre, this desire, which all of us share, is like our common yearning to become God (to become an all-powerful Being which is both complete and free at the same time). While we all share these desires, none of us can ever achieve them because they are ontologically incompatible. By its very nature, according to Sartre, successful sexual activity requires the willingness of its participants to engage in spontaneous activity in which one sacrifices one's Godlike rational control. One's pleasure, or lack of pleasure, is for Sartre exactly proportional to one's willingness to give up such control and enter this magical emotional realm. Thus, to the extent one refuses to do this, as Sally does, it is necessarily the case that one will be unable to achieve pleasure.

Allen's use of Berlin's distinction here also emphasizes another point. Berlin most concerned himself with the views of those thinkers who can not easily be fit into either camp, those of someone like Tolstoy, and Allen, who appear to be foxes, willing to accept the myriad variety of experience as it appears to us empirically in its vastly diversified fashion, while, at the same time, desperately wishing that there is some grand scheme of life, some underlying spiritual meaning, which lies just out of reach, of which we occasionally catch a glimpse, but which forever remains beyond our grasp.

Thus, in exploring the reason why Gabe found it necessary to finally reject Rain's romantic overtures, and his justification for concluding that in making this decision, "I really blew it", we can do no better than to reflect upon the implications of this description, given by Berlin, of Tolstoy's ultimate fate:

Tolstoy was the least superficial of men: he could not swim with the tide without being drawn irresistibly beneath the surface to investigate the darker depths below; and he could not avoid seeing what he saw and doubting even that; he could close his eyes but could not forget that he was doing so; his appalling, destructive sense of what was false frustrated this final effort at self- deception as it did all the earlier ones; and he died in agony, oppressed by the burden of his intellectual infallibility and his sense of perpetual moral error, the greatest of those who can neither reconcile, nor leave unreconciled, the conflict of what there is and what there ought to be (Berlin, 1953, p. 123).


<1>. See my " Sense and Sensibility': Sartre's Theory of the Emotions," The Review of Existential Psychology & Psychiatry. Volume XVII, number 1, 1983, pp. 67-78; or my "The Failure of Sex and Love in the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre," Philosophy Research Archives. Volume XI, 1985, pp. 513-520.

<2>. Those interested in seeing some of them may take a look at the articles mentioned in endnote 1, especially "' Sense and Sensibility': Sartre's Theory of the Emotions."

Back to Philosophical Films