Husbands and wives is a slight but charming film, and, had it not been for the inability of the press to distinguish between life and art, it would have opened in the usual eight theaters to reviews that were mildlv favorable if not quite ecstatic. Husbands and Wives is not a Shadows and Fog disaster, but neither is it a Manhattan or a Stardust Memories triumph. A pleasing, rueful little picture, it suffers from several billion dollars worth of publicity, Woody and Mia having been on more magazine covers in recent months than Elvis, Bigfoot, Fergie, and Di combined. This small bijou is on eight hundred screens, where people will be watching it who don’t recognize Benno Schmidt (he has a nice bit part to which he seems better suited than the presidency of Yale) and who can’t spot Nora Ephron or Bruce Jay Friedman, who also appear. What they are all hut to see is the breakup, the exchange of nasty words between Mia and Woody that are true and real. As if fictions were false and the only reliable truths were those of correspondence. As if the headlines made clearer the rage, hurt, and self-mocking humor that Allen has been showing us in twenty pictures now.

I suppose there may be people who in museums get off on how ugly Picasso could make this or that wife or mistress in the paintings he did of them just before their separation. (And, indeed, Allen has never before let Farrow look as bedraggled, as dismal, as unattractive as she does in what is presumably her farewell performance in his continuing troupe.) But that is not a useful comparison, because art, and especially high art, is exclusionary and tries to keep the mob at a distance. Movies, in economic as well as historic fact, are a mass art: the more bodies they can get into those seats, the better the producers like it. It is, as Steve Martin says in The Jerk, “a profit thing.”

But the mass-distribution environment is hardly a proper one for self-conscious expositions of desire and frustration in sexual, social, and artistic terms. Allen’s persona, which remains more or less constant through most of his movies, is intimidated by over-achieving intellectual women and drawn to younger, less threatening females of whom he is not frightened but whom he doesn’t have quite the nerve to pursue wholeheartedly. In a revealing scene in Husbands and Wives, Juliette Lewis, a Columbia student, has the effrontery to criticize a novel by her teacher Gabe Roth (that’s Woody), and he calls her a “twenty-year-old twit.” But that’s precisely what he adores about her—that her criticism is dismissable and therefore not wounding.

The film’s main titles run under a mournful rendition of Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and then the action opens with Roth watching television as a commentator cites Einstein’s remark about how God doesn’t play dice with the universe, to which Roth answers, “No, he plays hide and seek.”

Intelligent, elegant, and attitudinized. Husbands and Wives operates at a level of sophistication that is stratospheric in American movie-making. In the theater where I saw the film, the first real laugh came when Mia asks Woody, “Do you ever hide things from me?” Not the characters, but the players! As if it were smart to see through the pretence to the real stuff.

Well, sure, there have been all these headlines. But who cares? We are not thinking about inviting these people to dinner. It’s a movie. These are movie people, who are generically unreal. Those primitive tribes who refuse to be photographed because the camera will steal their souls may be, after all, correct. Or, to put it in another and more useful way, the reality is up there, on the screen. We have spent enormous amounts of time in the Allen psyche and ought to have some sense of what that bog is like—enough, at least, to suspect that, while the affair with Soon-Yi was likely enough, the charges of molestation of Dylan were without precedent. Allen’s characters’ weakness has always been for post-pubertal but still quite young women, as in Manhattan. Phoebe Hoban’s September 21 cover story in New York misses this, adducing stray one-liners (“In Annie Hall, Allen calls Lyndon Johnson a corrupt politician, ‘just a notch below child molesters'”) from which she draws the wrong conclusion, for these hardly seem to be endorsements of that kind of behavior.

On television news programs the day before the film’s opening, I heard that Mia had fired Dylan’s psychologist and rejected the professional’s advice that the seven-year-old child might need treatment for tendencies toward fantasy and confabulation. I should prefer that the accusations of child molestation are false, as this announcement allows us to hope. But even if we suppose the very worst, then what? Must we therefore deprive ourselves of Allen’s films? Of Schubert’s music and Tchaikovsky’s, too, for that matter? Chaplin’s escapades, political and sexual, do not diminish his miraculous work, and, while Allen’s achievement is not quite at that level, he has made a number of fine films to which his present scandal seems irrelevant—even this new movie.

Allen and Juliette Lewis share one kiss. That’s it. And the Roths’ marriage shatters. Meanwhile, their friends Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) break up, take other lovers, get back together, and seem just fine. Where is the justice to that, or the sense? What are the rules? How can we even begin to guess what to do and how to live?

These are serious questions, and this relatively frothy comedy raises them with some tact and style. My interest in the private lives of the players is virtually nil, but my interest in a work of art is considerable. I am therefore curious to see how this movie will fare and what Allen’s next pictures will be, with an audience of the wrong size and full of the wrong expectations looking on—or not even looking but leering. If there is any uncomfortable misalliance here, it is the very old one of art and the mob.