| Dir: Woody Allen
“For all my education, accomplishments and so-called wisdom – I can’t fathom my own heart.”
Woody Allen has been nominated 16 times for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Hannah and Her Sisters is one of these, and one of the three that he’s won. It’s more screenwriting nominations than anyone else and no surprise that this acclaimed writer would give his 2016 film, Café Society, an apparent novelistic quality. It’s something he’s wanted to do for a long time and his triumph in this sublime piece of work from 1986 – with scene titles as if chapters and characters narrating their own story arcs – is the closest he’s come to achieving that.
With its exploration of troubles with interconnected familial relationship, this could arguably be seen as version of Interiors which Allen has lightened and sharpened 8 years on. It’s what established his convention for large ensembles of differing worldviews challenging the boundaries of life and the boundaries physical connection via intellectual dialogue. Each character is defined and dissected in front of the camera in his most overbearingly (if you’re not charmed by it) neurotic film. Voice overs and inner monologues reflect this neurotic nucleus of Allen’s depiction of people; it guides their actions and it guides the narrative here.
The film plays like a pleasant and pleasurable Chekhovian family drama, especially as it charts three years in the lives of three sisters Hannah (Mia Farrow), Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest). It’s largely inspired by Farrow’s real life family background and even incorporated into the shooting – Hannah’s apartment is Farrow’s apartment; her mother Maureen O’Sullivan plays her on screen mother; the relationship issues between the showbiz parents; similarities in the professions of the sisters; even Allen’s alleged romantic interest in her sister Tisa. All this meta is taken even further by Holly writing a script based on the background of their family background, similar to Alvie Singer writing a script based on the relationship in Annie Hall, which was itself based on the relationship between Woody and Diane Keaton.
Farrow was “honoured and outraged” at Allen taking “many of the circumstances and themes in our lives and…distorting them into cartoonish characterisations.” But turning ordinary reality into art is “what writers do”, she concedes, and what Allen has built his entire career on. He’s one of the best at exaggerating situations and character traits that we all recognise for heightened dramatic and comedic effect. From the more articulate “I’m just trying to complete an education I started on you five years ago” to the more basic “Boy, love is really unpredictable”. But what’s unsettling in terms of Allen’s writing regularly being taken from real life is his constant references and throwaway gags involving child molestation. I count at least 10 in these 17 films into his canon. It’s upsetting to see regardless of the wider circumstances of his private life.
This was first film since Annie Hall without collaborator and cinematographer Gordon Willis, who’s responsible for shaping Allen’s education in the craft of filmmaking through nurturing his creative maturity. But swapping to Carlo di Palma, Michelangelo Antonioni’s longtime collaborator, was no trade off. They would work together on 11 more films up to 1997. He brings a lovely eavesdropping quality to our time with these people. He creates such great dynamics in amalgamating moments of intimate privacy and public awareness. This is not notable in the scene with the sisters at lunch where the camera circles around them as they unleash their neurosis, bitterness and guilt at one another.
The simple gags here are often the most memorable too – Michael Caine’s version of “getting hysterical”; the thought of Woody Allen as a Hare Krishne; the sight of Allen at a punk concert; “How the hell should I know why there were Nazi’s. I don’t know how the can opener works”.
The breadth of characters gives Allen a richly textured canvas to paint and probe all manner of themes and behaviours. With three years to cover and this many interesting characters to develop, it naturally sprawls, but it’s a truly lived in world. Michael Caine as Elliot shows such range – from the boyish giddiness in getting his answer from Lee, to the frustrated eruption at wife Hannah after his affair with Lee is broken off against his will. He nails every note of the character’s written journey with precision. While he admitted to not having the best experience working with Allen, he’ll surely have found it worth it for the Oscar, which he’s fully deserving of. As is other Oscar winner Dianne Wiest, who turns from grating minor character to affectionate lead as the narrative progresses.
Allen’s story arc as hypochondriac Micky feels the least connected to this world and these people. This becomes apparent even more so when the final act shifts so sharply from the love triangle to the his courtship with Holly. After the darkly truthful endings to The Purple Rose of Cairo, Stardust Memories, Interiors and Manhattan he goes for a conventionally happy ending that reads false. Woody regrets “not having the nerve and resolving it too neatly…satisfying in some way…they resign themselves”. While no character arc is left unfulfilled, thing are resolved with contrivance. This is the first of Allen’s films in my retrospective where I’ve left with a colder feeling upon rewatch. It’s still brilliant, but in the context of his filmography, it’s not quite the pinnacle I had considered it to be.
Part of Woody Wednesday. Fourth viewing.