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Divorce His (1973)/Divorce Hers (1973) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

jane martin film films

Principal social theme: divorce

World Film. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Barry Foster, Carrie Nye, Gabriele Ferzetti, Daniela Surina, Rudolph Walker, Mark Colleano, Eva Griffith, Rosalyn Lander, Ronald Radd. Written by John Hopkins. Cinematography by Ernst Wild and Gabor Pogany. Edited by John Bloom. Music by Stanley Meyers. Produced by Terence Baker and Gareth Wigan. Directed by Waris Hussein. Color. 76 minutes ( Divorce His ); 73 minutes ( Divorce Hers ).


A most unusual format distinguishes this film, or pair of films, to be more accurate. The premise is that each film portrays the breakdown of a marriage through the point of view of one of the spouses. The two stories cover the same time period, and certain scenes, with both spouses present, appear in both films but with different camera angles. These films were initially run on successive nights on CBS, February 6 and 7, 1973. Reviewers were intrigued, but critical that the storylines were too demanding, particularly since both pictures included numerous flashbacks. Missing even one brief scene could force a viewer to lose the thread of the plot. Nevertheless, this experimental approach well suited the theme of the film, the traumatic events that lead to a divorce.


Divorce His concentrates on the thoughts, reflections, and events of a three-day period in the life of Martin Reynolds (Richard Burton). An influential economic advisor to an African government, Martin arrives in Rome to handle the negotiations with AWI, a firm that has a thriving industry in Africa. He once served as a top executive with AWI. The advisor is separated from his wife, Jane (Elizabeth Taylor), who lives with their three children in an elegant villa in Rome. As Martin prepares for his negotiations, his mind is drawn back to when he first took his job in Africa and his wife refused to accompany him, choosing to remain in Rome instead. He also recalls other troublesome aspects of his marriage, fights in which he struck Jane and her attempted suicide. He accidentally runs into Jane at a cocktail party hosted by Diana Proctor, a mutual friend. Jane was unaware that Martin was back in Rome. They leave the party and talk over old times. Their son, Tommy, visits him at his hotel the next day, both to introduce his girlfriend and to borrow money. Martin takes his youngest daughter, Judith, for an afternoon outing. Later, Martin learns that the prime minister of the country he represents has undercut his negotiations with AWI, striking his own deal with the company, which Martin feels is inadequate. He quits his job and goes to his villa to see Jane and his children. She is not home, and Peggy, his older daughter, yells at him angrily and tells him to leave. Martin heads to the airport and is about to board a plane when he hears his name being paged over the loudspeaker to answer an urgent phone call. It is from Jane, imploring him to come back to the villa at once so they can talk. Divorce His ends here. Divorce Hers returns the story back to Diane Proctor’s cocktail party a few days earlier. This time, the camera follows Jane Reynolds, exploring her thoughts and memories. She is having an affair with a married man, and she decides to withdraw from this relationship. Jane is filled with mixed feeling about her estranged husband. Diane visits her, and confesses that she had an affair with Martin several years earlier. Outraged, Jane asks her to leave. She is out when her husband visits, and is upset to hear that Peggy threw him out. Judith is furious with Peggy and refuses to speak with her. Jane desperately tries to locate Martin before he leaves Rome and has him paged at the airport. (This is the point at which Divorce His concluded.) Martin and Jane have a long discussion. Martin wants a reconciliation, which stuns Jane who believed that Martin no longer loved her. Unfortunately, Jane feels it is too late. Their talk is interrupted by a representative from the African country who asks him to resume his job. He says that the cabinet will not support the deal the prime minister had made and that it is essential for Martin to return to Africa at once. Jane urges Martin to take back the job, and they clear up a few of their differences. She insists, however, that it is time that they get a divorce. As Martin prepares to leave, Jane tells him that Peggy will get over her hostility, and that the children would be free to visit him in Africa whenever they wish. As the film ends, Jane and Martin each decide to get on with their lives.


There is much to commend in this unusual dramatic pair of films, but there are a few drawbacks as well. Some viewers might find it hard to relate to the Reynolds family, given their status, wealth, and lifestyle. The dynamics of their marriage as it spirals inevitably toward divorce, however, are universal. Martin’s reticence and apparent boredom contrast magnificently with Jane’s unending scheming and grasping. Neither of them wants to hurt the other, but it seems that is all they can do whenever they come into contact. Several inconsistencies undercut the film. Although Jane is an American, all three of the children seem British, like their father, although his presence in their development seems minimal. Details are never spelled out. When a flashback begins, it is sometimes hard to place the event in the context of their eighteen-year story. Another problem is the poor sound. Largely shot at a German studio in Munich, the soundtrack is recorded at too low of a level, so many conversations come across as mumblings. The structure of the films is brilliant, but can only be appreciated after several viewings, as both pictures overlap, have common scenes, yet contradict each other in the flashbacks. It can be viewed as a mini- Rashomon (1950), the famous Japanese film in which the same event is seen quite differently by the participants. This brilliantly conveys the common problem in marriage when husband and wife recall the same event in vastly different ways. Other moments of the story require a good memory on the part of the audience. For example, in one scene of Divorce His , we hear Martin’s side of a telephone conversation. The other side of the same phone call is only revealed halfway through Divorce Hers . These films can provide discussion about the nature of divorce. At times, one spouse or the other appears to want to save the marriage, but never both at the same time. Both have been unfaithful. Both have ignored or exploited the other. Yet neither has attempted to use the children as pawns in their struggle, even though the three children are wildly divided in their attitudes about Martin’s possible return. Tommy is in favor, but only mildly since his father bores him. Peggy appears to hate her father when she sees him, yet in private she cries over his loss, blaming herself for his abandonment. Judith adores her father, and despises her sister for the hostility she shows him. This film is at its strongest when it shows the effect of marital troubles on the children. Finally, Divorce His and Divorce Hers are unique in that the script does not appear to take sides. It shows Martin and Jane both at fault for their problems. The psychology of the film goes somewhat deep at times. Jane in fact wants Martin to hit her, because that event would give her a hold over him. It prevents him from leaving her, forces him to respond to her by his very sense of shame and decency. Despite the abuse scene, Martin seems much of the time to be a victim. Only at the end, after Jane asks for the divorce, does he seem to be on the mend, to becoming a whole man again. Jane, on the other hand, portrays herself as a victim, but much of the time it is she who is in control, managing events and anticipating their outcome. On the whole, these films form a rather rich tapestry of marriage, and some of this might be that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were themselves modern icons, larger than life, and noted for their two stormy marriages in real life. Watching their arguments and embraces on screen, one wonders to what extent life is following art or art is following life.

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