Annie Hall is many things: a thoughtful, perceptive dissection of romance, a frothy, light romantic comedy, and a devastating depiction of the inevitability of loss in love. It is also, more than anything, not the film Woody Allen was on the path to making in 1977. While he was a noted comedy writer-director by this time, and one who had made several strong features, his films were defined by their frothy-caustic anarchy and generally zany Marx Brothers riffs, movies structured less like narrative than improvisational comedy. This last part continues in Allen’s then most mature feature, Annie Hall, but while it boasts a number of laugh aloud moments, its humor is underscored by a fundamental nervousness that puts it at odds with Allen’s previous works.
Personified in Allen’s Alvy Singer, the kind of figure who would soon become an Allen stereotype but who here feels youthful with worry, this film was Allen’s first to tread the line between the caustic and the deeply warm-hearted, the incorrigible and the unquestionably brittle. This isn’t a depressing picture per-se – it’s far too energetic and lively – but it does deal with ends as much as beginnings, innately creating a sort of finality that breeds some sense of loss absent in any of Allen’s previously more abstract, even obtuse, sketch-like works. Annie Hall is also, in addition to all these things, and perhaps because of Allen’s skill at combining them into a whole greater than the sum of its parts, pure cinematic dynamite, a film so in love with and so angry at the world it cannot help but provide us with new ways of looking at it.
Alvy Singer (Allen) hasn’t been lucky in love. He’s been through many relationships, but it’s when he meets Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) that his life – well, not so much changes as continues on, but Allen happened to film this part, so that’s where we’re at. It starts out with an uneasy meeting between two frail humans, but things soon blossom into a full-blown romance that only reveals them frailer still. They not only get to know each other – Allen delves deeply into a Hollywood romance sensibility to give us a sense that love demands they were meant for each other. But everything is shot through with a sense of temporality –we’re aware early on, thanks to Allen’s non-continuity and non-chronological framing, that any sense of romance is moving toward its own end. What once was exciting and passionate becomes run of the mill, and as the days turns to months, they grow apart.
The famously perturbed Allen doesn’t skewer Alvy or Annie. He likes them, genuinely. That’s why he gives them human problems and allows their relationship to unfold naturally, rather than taking up screen time with writer’s constructs to give them artificial conflict. He likes watching them go about their days, together, and separately, and as we get to know them we come to like them too. Allen has always been called a cynic, a guy who is ready to sharpen his knives and throw them at just about everyone. That’s true, but he’s also one of the cinema’s finest humanists, a man so in love with the world he can’t help but skewer it and poke fun at its eccentricities and the little moments we all share in our daily lives. There’s a constantly decaying love in his films, a sense he has to give us froth to bat off the ever-crawling depression lying beneath. His films are filled with insight into human interaction and all the psychoanalysis you could imagine, but he filters it through a genuine humanism he can’t but share with us.
Furthermore, Allen doesn’t stack the deck in favor of either person, nor does he stack it against the relationship. From almost the beginning, we know they aren’t going to end up together. But this isn’t a false or “bad” relationship doomed from the beginning– it’s a real one. They bring each other joy and comfort, and they care about each other, and we come to want them to stay together because Allen’s chronolgy infuses the film with an existentialism we can’t shake. We come to see the film not as a critique of these two individuals, but as an exploration of love and romance more broadly – the film even approaches fable status, with the two individuals both as deeply defined individuals and stand-ins for the human form. If even these two genuinely flawed and human but nonetheless caring and loving people can’t succeed together, then maybe romance is fundamentally tense. As posited here, it’s Alvy’s neuroses and Annie’s freewheeling openness that draws them together, and it’s the same that draws them apart. In turn, we wonder, sadly, if what allows for romance also destroys it. Allen has always been best at that: seeing the good in the bad and the bad in the good. He understands tone and knows how to make a scene happy, sad, or happy-sad. And he knows how emotions bleed into each other to create something which can never feel whole.
The film, as such, is steeped in a bittersweet aura – he pokes and prods at love and it bleeds back, all epitomized by an ending which has the two together again, albeit briefly, with both in committed relationships. They’ve moved on, but there is a part of each of them that still longs for each other. If that’s tragic, it’s also uplifting because it reminds of the forever nature of a love in the mind that can’t necessarily exist in physical space. The two meet almost as friends, and if they can’t truly have each other, they can at least have a version of each other prepared and packaged for memory, perhaps a version that is more fulfilling and positive than would be true in real life. Allen treats these memories as he treats the relationship, with a wide-eye but a mixed-heart. He wants the two to end up together but knows they can’t in full, so he gives them a consolation prize that may be even greater than each other in the flesh. For a director so informed by psychoanalysis and the mind, that’s a scary thought: would we want to admit that it’s our memories of people, rather than the people themselves, who we share the closest links to?
More than anything, Allen knows the world will continue without Alvy and Annie together, even when it pauses for reflection. Like the world, these two must go on, but even as they go on there is a stagnancy, a persistence of the past in altered form, something that will never change. Even if they aren’t singularly meant for each other, they provided a togetherness at the time of their knowing each other, something temporal but never truly ending, and something Allen validates. In the end, he lets us know that, just because two people weren’t dogmatically meant for each other, it doesn’t mean they can’t have fun while they’re failing at love, and it doesn’t mean they can’t help shape each other’s lives. Annie Hall is a deeply vulnerable film, then, a film of bitter insight, but it’s also very much a lovely film that finds love in the smallest and potentially darkest of places. Allen isn’t yet the cantankerous old man he would become, but someone struggling with how to reconcile an increasingly mature and bitter understanding of reality with his deep, profound romanticism and sentimentality. This is the rare film that can be both rapturously nostalgic, and proud of it, and entirely understanding of the need to move on and mature with time.
Allen isn’t normally known for his visual craftsmanship; he is first and foremost a writer, after all. He has a way with dialogue, and he uses characters who talk, and who often choose not to talk, to tell his stories. But there are a number of surprising visual tricks on display here – it’s not Wellesian or any such thing, but it’s borderline stunning by romantic-comedy standards. Most famously, in one of the film’s towering achievements, a clever use of split-screen presents Alvy and Annie talking to each other non-diegetically. They aren’t in the same room; they are both talking to counselors about their relationship, but Allen is able to present them on the screen together while also reinforcing their separation through split-screen. He makes it so that they are at once talking to each other, with one beginning as the other ends, and really, truly, talking to themselves. In turn, he achieves something magisterial: a feeling that they are at once infinitely together even when far away, and that they are also perpetually alone.
There’s also something of genius in a famous scene where the two profess their love for each other in what is functionally acting out a movie-star conversation they pretend is the reality of their love. All the while, subtitles below tell us what they really mean but which they can’t say, a brilliant and, for the time revolutionary, use of irony by giving us what we “want” aurally through their spoken word and giving us the “reality” or what we “need” to hear but won’t admit visually. In doing so, Allen openly reveals his writing to be falsified and sentimental, subsuming it to his visuals and again breaking the logic of continuity editing which states that audio and visuals are supposed to act in unison (he does it again when he gives us an animated sequence with Snow White as a guest star). He’s one of the few mainstream American directors who gets a high on pure self-deprecation, and Annie Hall extends it to all of film by visually shooting itself in the foot when we expect something streamlined. That Allen would preface visuals over dialogue, and indeed indict his dialogue, is all the more shocking when one considers his fame as a writer first and a director second. Indeed, if this was Allen’s maturation as a writer and a formalist, it remains as nervously childlike as he ever was, with the film’s flurry of ricocheting styles suggesting a voice anxiously searching for a lens to organize and pacify the world; Allen’s famously perturbed bundle-of-nerves demeanor inscribes itself in the spasmodic, twitchy formal caliber of the restless, unsatisfied, even confused swivels from one style to another.
Elsewhere, Allen uses visual contrast to define geography as a character in itself. Allen is and has always been fascinated by cities. They are perhaps the greatest through-line in all his films, a pet theme of his. He obviously loves New York (two years later he made his ultimate ode to the city by elevating it to the pantheon of great art in Manhattan), painting it with a sense of majestic darkness and vibrant, cool energy. There’s a little of that here, but it’s less loving than perceptive. New York is a stand-in for Alvy, a place that has built him and made him who he is, and where he feels comfortable: it’s chilly, somewhat emotionally distant, but intellectually stimulating, bathed here in cooler colors by Allen. Its personality, like Alvy’s, is contrasted with an LA that reflects Annie, an LA where Alvy feels innately uncomfortable. To this effect Allen films LA with more energy, a more unchained camera, and brighter, even blinding colors right from the beginning. For Alvy, LA reflects a less classically-minded intellectualism and goes more for the pragmatic gut. Within, Allen defines people as part of the geometry of the world, flying in the face of the rampant individualism that dominates American filmmaking and having the confidence to not even mention it in dialogue. And if he doesn’t come away criticizing New York, his one true love, this at least reflects a self-reflexive rut in the relationship; he undeniably sees LA as more “alive”, and says maybe that he, Allen, doesn’t want much to do with being alive.
In some ways, Annie Hall was a picture at a revolution, albeit ten years later than the revisionist Westerns and noirs that would define the American New Wave began to populate the filmic world. But Allen takes things even further; he creates a film that manages, at once, to be as caustic and damaged as any American New Wave film, and to throw them for a loop by being cheery and delirious when those films were somber. It is nothing short of the perfect melding of 70’s era cynicism and 40’s era romantic joyous mirth, something that aims to be both brutal in its honesty and wonderfully magical in its openly filmic fantastical-ness. It flies in the face of the dour New Wave logic in its return to classic Hollywood as much as it proves a serious retort to classic Hollywood by seeing Allen take up the New Wave (and this is all without mentioning his undeniably European interpretation of American film). That’s quite a lot to deal with, but Allen manages it like he’s curled up in his best chair with a comfortable book he’s read a thousand times before. He’s mastered it, but even if it’s merely a twist of a phrase, he’s always finding something new.