Husbands is the third film from maverick independent filmmaker John Cassavetes following Shadows and Faces, his compromised studio-made diptych of Too Late Blues and A Child Is Waiting having been largely written out of film history. Recently released by Park Circus and still criminally unavailable on DVD in the UK, Husbands is a challenging tour de force that is too little seen.
Husbands, which has a subtitle “A Comedy About Life, Death and Freedom”, is about three men (Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara, who both died recently, and John Cassavetes himself) left shell-shocked after the death of a mutual friend. Married with children, the three men yearn for more freedom and ultimately use the death of their friend as an excuse to have one last hedonistic blowout before going back home.
As is probably clear from the above synopsis, the film follows three insecure men who are still children at heart, characters which are much too often seen in today’s Judd Apatow and Todd Phillips-inflected cinema – after all, Grown Ups, sadly, could be this film’s title. However, Cassavetes and his cast are much more interested in dissecting the man-child rather than sanctifying him as some kind of representation of masculine innocence, no matter how misogynistic and boorish he might be. As a result, you can watch Husbands without feeling dirty. But that does not mean it is an easy film to watch.
Like any cinematic maverick, Cassavetes wanted his audience to work and his films can be difficult, either by being unclear in terms of narrative and ultimate meaning. The audience is often left to decide a lot of things for themselves. However, what the film, and what all of Cassavetes’ great films, lack in cohesion and coherence, they make up for in sheer innovation. No one really believes the myths of improvisation that surround his films, but the films of Cassavetes do yet remain remarkably haphazard and unpredictable. The tone will suddenly shift, nice characters suddenly do bad things and moments that once seemed trivial and throwaway reach incredible peaks of intensity. Ultimately, if Cassavetes’ films have flaws, and audiences brought up on a mainly Hollywood diet would insist they do, it is because they are open to all levels of human experience, not just the ones that can be easily replicated and sealed off with a nice narrative bow. Cassavetes’ films, and Husbands is no different, feature characters who feel real and many scenes feel incredibly true to life, mirroring life in all its incomprehensibility and unevenness.
Husbands is an extreme example of Cassavetes’ style of filmmaking, although some might find it easier than others, one of the most rewarding things about his films being the range of responses they inspire. For me, Husbands is one of his more difficult films. It is also a film that is practically impossible to form an opinion of as it is playing. The film has be have finished and time has to have passed before your mind can come to a consensus on it. Many scenes will initially feel extremely superfluous, if not whole sections like the excursion to London, and the film may feel like it is never going to end, but afterwards it feels near impossible to pinpoint a scene that could have been excised without damaging the overall film. Cassavetes at his best was never easy and Husbands, love it or hate it, cringe at it, cry at it or laugh at it, is a classic of challenging and confrontational art.
As well as all that, it is very funny, with every scene, short or extended, gleefully exposing some comical facet of masculinity. The film is also packed with little nuances and incongruities, which will most likely reward repeat viewing, just as his masterpiece A Woman Under The Influence certainly does. Beneath the boisterous posturing that the three characters/actors use as macho fronts, there is a real desperation and sadness that is nearly always threatening to break through. That it never quite does is an indication of how out of touch with their feelings the three men are, a particular problem that thwarts at least one character in all of Cassavetes’ great films. Husbands is a difficult watch, but it is incredibly recognisable in ways that few other films are.
However, as is always the case with Cassavetes, the most impressive and fascinating thing in Husbands is the acting. Falk, Gazzara and Cassavetes clown around a lot, but they never feel like they are acting and they never do the typical movie-exposition scene designed to let us as viewers in. They lay their characters, and themselves, bare but they never feel like anything less than real people going through real problems. The performances are incredibly evocative with, for example, Falk and Cassavetes saying all they need to say in summary with a almost-slapstick routine involving two big shopping bags full of gifts in the film’s melancholic final moments. When the film is over, you are bewildered but you also know that you have been in the hands of actors with some very real talent. And afterwards, most other films will probably seem stilted and melodramatic, but mainly, and most damningly, fake.
Husbands, like all of Cassavetes’ great films, exudes sincerity and real human emotions, the more complex the better. It might initially make little sense, but it is a remarkably multi-faceted and human work, with a great sense of humour and some of the best performances ever caught on film. It is a difficult film but it is a film made by people with genuine talent who, sadly, made too few films together. Each one, however, is a gem.