Hannah and Her Sisters (1986, Woody Allen)

!!! A+ FILM !!!

The first thing to note about Hannah and Her Sisters is how lovingly directed it is. As ever, Woody Allen’s visual sense is immaculate — you can go to New York and it’ll be beautiful but it’ll never look this good — as is his unusual, elastic blocking of scenes. This is famously a break for Allen because of its warmth, which isn’t to say that his movies generally feel distant, just that they always have kind of a guard up. But every shot in this movie is skillfully invisible yet engrossing, and most of all, inviting. There are moments of uproarious comedy — Allen himself can generate laughs by taking Wonderbread out of a bag or by taking on too businesslike and forceful a tone when asking someone to donate sperm — but it is so admirably restrained it too becomes affecting, and in a way, all the more uproarious.

The warmth and grace attain an almost magic feeling, which intoxicates and permeates Hannah from its first moments; it begins with words on a screen — “God, she’s beautiful…” — which set up what is to follow and are then repeated by Michael Caine. Caine sells a part that is so convincingly written one would expect it wouldn’t need his help, but he enlivens every expression and word. Caine is Elliot, a happy husband with a conventional, upper-crust family life who nevertheless is smitten with his sister-in-law Lee; their subsequent affair reveals him as a eternal optimist, to a ridiculous degree. In his most famous scene, Caine responds to an I-dunno-well-maybe with the immortal line “I have my answer! I’m walking on air!” It’s a perfect example of how so many men see and hear only what they want, interpreting the actions of women only in a context favorable to them, and yet in a strange way we cheer along with him because nearly all of us understand the joy in a tentative moment of unrequited love becoming potentially real. That’s the sort of thorny, mixed sentiment that lets Allen achieve a kind of drunken nirvana with his characters here.

Caine is joined by great performances from the whole cast; the three central performances of Mia Farrow as Elliot’s wife Hannah, Dianne Wiest and particularly Barbara Hershey as her sisters Holly and Lee are luminous. Hannah’s character is a patient provider the likes of whom we seldom see in American films, especially portrayed by women; Wiest provides outsize personality in her brilliantly witty, mildly tragic turn as a lonely baker, partier and aspiring writer, and Hershey just tells a hundred sad stories in the things she doesn’t directly express. Their stories collide and mesh and intertwine but don’t particularly proceed along in linear fashion, save the Bergmanesque use of three annual holiday dinners as a framing device; Allen portrays Hannah’s ex, a hypochondriac TV writer, and his scenes amount to a separate (and very funny) short film that happens to share an ending with the feature. Each of the characters is fully developed, including peripheral figures like Max von Sydow’s grouchy Frederick, longtime companion to Lee, and most viewers will likely see elements of themselves in each of them. Personally I relate more to Hannah now than I did as a younger person, especially in that drag-out argument with her husband that concludes with her saying she does have needs, and Elliot screaming that no one can see them.

Allen’s sometimes tone-deaf dialogue is already an inevitable mixed bag by this point. But during this period of his career, any off-note of hackneyed exposition or pretentious nonsense was always followed by something absolutely stunning: the sequence between Caine and Hershey in the bookshop on 4th street (which now only sells prints and has infamously cranky customer service, or so Google tells me), or the strangely heartbreaking scene of Lloyd Nolan (whose last film this was) playing the piano to diffuse an argument. And in general, when Allen and his actors are getting at something that seems real, the sensation of bearing witness is quite powerful — the fling between Lee and Elliot flares up and flames out just like such a lustful and disruptive affair really would, and nothing really comes of it. It’s depicted as something the two of them had to get out of their systems, and nothing more — and there’s something atypically realistic (and perversely optimistic) about long-term relationships in that. Certain conversations have an eerily but wonderfully lived-in quality, particularly those between Hershey and von Sydow, whose odd and one-sided relationship is shown with great sensitivity and empathy; and Dianne Wiest and Allen’s reunion at a record store, which almost seems improvised. (“I’m glad I ran into you… maybe.”)

The director’s own performance is indeed one of his very best; he’s not unusually serious or heartfelt in it, but he is remarkably understated, and the contrast this creates with the massive emotions buried in every line and scene result in something as moving, I think, as a film can get. Material like Allen’s disastrous date with Wiest makes for simultaneous high comedy and heartbreak that pays off wonderfully an hour or so later. It’s remarkable to me that in the decade since I first saw this film and cried my eyes out to Allen’s voiceover about deciding not to kill himself and going to see a screening of Duck Soup instead, the power of that monologue hasn’t diluted for me at all. It’s a crucial defining moment in Allen’s cinema and in cinema generally — more felt and direct, I believe, than the more beloved finale of The Purple Rose of Cairo — wherein he voices not just the point of the movie but the point of, well, living, and he tosses it off in a way that suggests it’s not much at all. Along the way, his search for Great Truth takes him to various religions and provides the funniest moments of the movie, but still there is a sense of real desperation — not just angst, as is the case so often in stories like this — that renders the hopeful tone of the ending all the more important. The “Woody persona” is rattling off dialogue naturalistically, as always, and he’s funny and insightful and suddenly you realize that everything he is saying is true, and not only true but comforting, and not only comforting but, again, magic.

The script wraps everything up elegantly, and as we fade to black, we’ve truly been somewhere and have come to know people. Endings have always seemingly come easy for the director. This time, instead of taking us to the edge of a cliff and leaving us there as in Manhattan, sweeping us away and abruptly dropping everybody to the ground as in Sleeper, or drowning us in bittersweet reality as in Annie Hall, he’s left us with promise and hope in a manner that’s a shock coming from him and might be obvious coming from anyone else… but either way, it’s perfectly set up, and it’s a breathtaking conclusion. Allen sort of disowned the movie in later years, and it does seem unusual for him to allow cynicism to be overtaken by something so humane — I wouldn’t make the mistake of equating humane with “light,” but oh well. I remember actually gasping at the last line the first time, a line Allen would poke fun of in Bullets Over Broadway and maybe it is a little on-the-nose — but I find that my reaction is of remembering with great warmth how I felt the first time I heard it. So revisiting this is sort of like seeing close family again; there’s something to be said for that air of low-key comfort and familiarity. I can see criticisms of the whole thing, but I still think it’s unforced and sweet, and truly great. It’ll probably always be a Thanksgiving tradition in my house.

[Expanded from a review written and posted in 2005.]

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