Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Woody Allen | 1hr 47min

If Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s most experimentally formal film in its boundlessly creative self-reflexivity, Hannah and Her Sister’s structural ambition acts as a counterpoint to that in its far more naturalistic and composed approach, unfolding like chapters of a novel. The decades of history behind the dysfunctional family relationships that swirl around Mia Farrow’s titular Hannah feel tangible in their organic interactions, and although she is the link through which each narrative thread of this film comes together, she is not our focus. Instead, Allen shifts our attention to three other characters around her – her cheating husband Elliot, her hypochondriacal ex-husband Mickey, and her chaotic, formerly drug addicted sister Holly. Just as her self-absorbed relatives take her bountiful generosity for granted, so too does Allen relegate her own personal issues to the background of each story arc, wrapping us up in the internal voiceovers of men and women who can only perceive the world through their own narrowed perspectives, passing us from one to the next like batons in a race that each character is running only for themselves.

Formally impressive bookends in these family Thanksgiving celebrations that Allen’s camera floats through, the only times all his characters are all captured in one space.

In its bookends of two Thanksgiving parties set 24 months apart, Hannah and Her Sisters is marked by those family gatherings where relatives who might barely see each other throughout the year converge and share in moments of unity, though evidently here that comfort is only found by those willing to open themselves up to lives beyond their own. As Allen’s camera idly drifts around this upscale New York apartment at either end of this narrative, we see these important players brought together in one space, their personal arcs laid out clearly by the contrasting dynamics of both celebrations.

Of course, it is Hannah who is responsible for running these events, remaining the one constant in the lives of those around her who fluctuate and change. This image of poise and altruism that she projects may stir some gratefulness on occasion, but it also inspires insecurity. “I need someone I can matter to,” whines Elliot when reflecting upon the growing distance between him and his seemingly perfectly wife. Worsening the situation is that his secret lover is Lee, another of Hannah’s sisters, whose abuse of her sibling’s trust just piles onto the stack of characters who cannot reconcile their love for her with their own sense of value. She might agree with Elliot that “It’s hard to be around someone who gives so much and needs so little in return”, but it is barely a reasonable excuse for either of their philandering. Even so, it remains quite extraordinary that in Michael Caine’s performance we can still find sympathy for this kind of egocentric self-doubt.

A pair of matching shots revealing the significant Antonioni influence on Allen’s work, using architecture and backgrounds to paint out pictures of isolation and disillusionment.

Meanwhile in Mickey’s storyline we find a man wading through the murky philosophical waters of existentialism and mortality, his apprehensive medical check-ups played out in comical montages of contraptions and wires winding all over his body. Like Elliot, he too is plagued by insecurities that overwhelm his own perception of reality, in one scene hallucinating his doctor’s sombre delivery of the news that he has cancer, right before the doctor actually walks in and informs him that he is clear. In one harsh cut, he leaps out onto the streets of New York, dancing with glee to the tune of loud band music, before suddenly stopping dead in his tracks as he nihilistically reminds himself that he will still die one day.

The foregrounding of Socrates as Mickey considers the “great minds” of philosophy in voiceover.

Driven by his mid-life crisis to find the answers to life’s big questions, Mickey considers converting to different religions as casually as one might research a holiday destination, though it is only when he embraces the unknowability of his existential queries and when his story collides with Holly’s that he finds his way back into the folds of the family as a place of acceptance. She lives perhaps the messiest life of anyone else here, moving between acting, a catering business, and television writing, and struggling to find success in any of these ventures. It is clear in her thoughtless use of Hannah’s personal life as a subject for her screenplay that like the others, she doesn’t give much regard to her sister’s feelings, though in finally turning her pen inwards in self-examination she finds both love and professional success with Mickey.

Through the complex tapestry of vignettes, flashbacks, and plot threads that make up Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen keeps returning to chapter breaks and philosophical quotes, structuring the film like a piece of literature concerned with the bearing of human thought and ethics on small lives. “The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless,” Allen’s text displays, quoting Tolstoy as a means to contextualise Mickey’s search for purpose, while titles like “The Abyss”, “The Audition”,and “The Big Leap” mark new episodes over the two years this story is set across. Allen further splits up his characters by associating them with specific musical genres, underscoring Elliot’s scenes with opera, Mickey’s with jazz, and revealing Holly’s love of rock in one particular flashback that also divulges it as a historical point of conflict between her and Mickey.

Allen’s camera continuing to float all throughout the film, a highlight being at this lunch between all three sisters as it circles their table.

Even with such fantastic formal ambition in its divisions, Hannah and Her Sisters flows remarkably smoothly in its organic character drama and dialogue. When all three sisters meet for lunch in a brief collision of plot threads, Allen fluidly circles his camera around their table, letting Hannah and Holly converse over the latter’s career struggles while focusing predominantly on a silent, guilty Lee. Back at home, their discussions and volatile arguments move through different rooms of the apartment, and Allen’s camera continues to pan and drift along with them, framing these family members in doorways and against walls that confine them to claustrophobic spaces. Through their quarrels there is seemingly always some domestic chore or task for them to perform, maintaining that impression of a world beyond their own immediate issues, while keeping up a restless energy in their ongoing interactions.

Antonioni’s influence again in the framing of characters within corridors and doorways, alienated from others by the visual dividers in the mise-en-scène.

How fascinating it is though that in this ensemble of magnificently complex and flawed characters, the one who we might assume would be the lead is the least developed of them all. She too might have her own hilarious and poignant anecdotes to tell, but Hannah and Her Sisters is primarily intrigued by those more selfish lives which branch out from her own, undergoing emotional arcs that come to decisive resolutions. For someone as kind and giving as Hannah, whose life is dedicated to the endless pursuit of helping others, a tidy, gratifying ending is simply an unfathomable prospect.

Mickey and Holly’s storylines slowly coming together, still divided in this shot but eventually united in the final Thanksgiving lunch.

Hannah and Her Sisters is available to rent or buy on iTunes.


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