Woody Allen has made many great films, and, as has become too obvious of late, many less than great ones. Generally, he’s at his best when things are at their most unsentimental and nervy – he’s on less sure footing when it comes to exploring purely positive, uncomplicated depictions of his characters. But for all his cynicism, Allen loves people. Or more appropriately, he uses his hate for people to deal out tough love for them, and this was never more-so true than in Hannah and Her Sisters, his only true masterpiece of mostly unaffected romantic sentimentalism and unapologetic sweetness (to go with his not insignificant number of masterpieces of far more troubled, anxious cynicism).
But if the narrative is one of romance, it’s also one of family and of complication. Hannah (Mia Farrow), competent and loving, is married to accountant Elliot (Michael Caine), who is busy with the eternal struggles – boredom, malaise, loneliness – and finding solace in an assumption of love for Hannah’s sister Lee (Barbara Hershey). Lee is herself in a committed relationship with troubled artist Frederick (Max von Sydow) which plays out like the earliest realization of Allen’s pop-Bergman fantasies (likely intentional considering the casting of von Sydow). Frederick feigns power and competence but is in reality hopeless without Lee, who he controls and manipulates with his own version of pity. The core of the film, or at least most of the screen time, is taken up by these interfamily tensions, of which Hannah’s other sister Holly (Dianne Wiest), who remains perpetually clumsy and insecure, is the final jumble of nerves in this tangled mass.
But the thematic center of the film, if not the emotional, is actually Allen as Mickey, Hannah’s ex-wife. He’s a TV executive, perhaps the fullest expression of the neurotic Allen “stereotype”, but also among the most telling. While the others are constantly looking for romance, he spends the movie worrying and concerned about his own death and destruction. He provides a voice for Allen the writer and director to both validate and critique. He’s always around the other characters, yet never with them. But if Allen critiques his own persona for his lack of human contact and his perpetual nervy loneliness, he isn’t afraid to see the character as a beacon of light around the other characters’ half-hearted attempts to define their selves in relation to other people. Allen sympathizes with his characters here, but he isn’t afraid to push and prod at them as they circle around each other without necessarily connecting with each other. They remain stagnant in their need for failed human contact, going through romances like pencils. Within, at least Mickey realizes this stagnancy and doesn’t put much effort into it.
Some, perhaps nervously, claim that Hannah and Her Sisters is Allen’s lightest movie. And while it is perhaps one of his most frothy, it also boasts a darker, more probing undercurrent. While it’s easy to read the film’s structure, which is cyclical but also progressive in that it begins and ends at family Thanksgiving dinners two years apart, with one in the middle where much of the complication begins, as moving the characters toward a better life situation than when they began. That’s not necessarily Allen’s vision though. He loads the film up, visually, with a sense of loving humanity, especially when it comes to the mythic New York, here almost rendered the land of holiday fable where characters can play out complication but will inevitably end up okay at the end. But there’s also a knowing realism to the film, with love set across the backdrop of New York’s record stores and small concert venues rather than any grand operatic location, that belies his own tempering romance with the permanent understanding of fluctuation and stagnancy.
We’d like to, in other words, think that the characters after two years have “found” their true loves. But Allen is less sure. After all, one Thanksgiving before the film’s end they were unsure of themselves and hopelessly lost in their own complications and even perhaps competition – competition for love and a better life. Here, a year later, who’s to say they aren’t in the same situation? They all end with new partners, but if love left them lost once, is there anything to say love again won’t do the same? That’s because the film isn’t really about love in itself – it’s about love as a means of moving forward while remaining stagnant, a means of keeping “busy” in the world’s busiest city, rendering people unable to stop and reflect at the world around them.
The movie then is a commentary on romance in general, being about people questing after love, not love itself. It’s about the journey, but it posits a sort of perpetual journey that never ends and may keep people from realizing a greater beauty. These people are so caught up in looking for love they may never be able to truly know it. Why else is it that Allen’s treats us to a scene, one of the few in the film where the three sisters meet and talk to each other, that features them at a table, and he circles around them with his camera constantly? Even as they remain stagnant, the camera continuously moves as life moves past them. But the scene reflects something else too: the center of the film is the three sisters, and the three together are a whole they can’t perhaps see in any one individually. In their perpetual quest for male love, they may lose the female bond of sisterhood.
Allen is and has always been someone who trades in liking and disliking his characters in turn, and the tension within this voice, rendered by his poetic, elegiac camera, drives his films forward. If Allen does critique his other characters as eternally looking after love to the point where they can never truly find it, that doesn’t stop him from wondering if maybe their perpetual questing isn’t for the better, especially when the alternative can be a form of questioning that moves toward probing death and destruction, as Mickey does. Mickey may be so focused on death he can’t truly find anything in life – he like everyone else is continually worrying and looking for something. They’re all thinking about the future to the point where the present becomes a vague question, and this more than anything binds them in their aching humanity.
Thus, if Mickey seems different from everyone else, as Allen assumes we will think, being an audience reared on the “otherness” of people who fixate on death, Allen sets out to reflect how we’re all just swimming in circles in the same stew to no avail. When Mickey finds love toward the end of the film, we still think he might be right, as Allen may be, about the totality of death that the other characters are forgetting. But we’re also glad he’s forgotten how to be right and decided to just be comfortable with what he deep-down realizes he probably shouldn’t be comfortable with, living. In other words, if Allen is a cynic and even a nihilist because he denies any real value to any of his characters’ worries or actions, he also uses this nihilism for great humanism: he posits that, if there’s no meaning in anything, than the simple act of finding meaning is itself meaning. Remember, if Allen sees no true destination, he isn’t afraid to love the journey anyway. And love he does – this film, for all its subtle anxiety, is effervescently romantic and hopeful and cheery and giddy and all the other adjectives usually applied to “happy” films. It is, if an anti-romance, also one of the cinema’s finest romances ever filmed.
This brings us, as it always does, to Allen’s greatest intrapersonal tension, his greatest question about life: is it better to doubt and question, to fester, as Mickey does, or to ride along and move forward, as everyone else does. He knows the latter is really a false option, with everyone who does try to go forward with life ultimately remaining about as stagnant and as depressed as Mickey. But Allen usually chooses it anyway. That’s what makes his films so fascinating, what gives them tension, and what gives them an honest heart. It is for this reason that I opened with a statement about this film’s eternal positivity and went on to explore how Allen undercuts that positivity from beginning to end. This is because, to him, living requires that the two aren’t mutually exclusive. After all, this is a man who titled one of his most famous films Love and Death – we now know he really sees the two as one and the same, but then Love and Love or Death and Death don’t exactly sound like sexy film titles (although I would certainly hold out for the latter). Few filmmakers would ever dare leave such an uneasiness in their films, to be both bouncingly, effervescently romantic, and drearily anxious. They would be accused of messiness. Allen knows that life is messy, and he revels in it.