On Screen: Hannah and Her Sisters

Written and directed by Woody Allen

An Orion Release

Because storytellers make the world a happier place to live in, we in turn wish storytellers much happiness. But they should leave all the well-wishing to us. Because if storytellers start wishing themselves well by proxy, by providing their characters with happy destinies in no way justified by the stories in which those characters reside, the imagination may lose its candor. Woody Allen’s new movie is a case in point Hannah and Her Sisters begins as a shrewd but kindly depiction of upper-middle-class emotional chaos. But it finishes as a pipe dream.

The focus here is on three daughters of a New York Jewish show biz family. Hannah (Mia Farrow) is a successful actress who has retired to a seemingly blissful second marriage to a well-heeled financial consultant, Elliott (Michael Caine). Holly (Dianne Wiest) is a frustrated actress, chronically out of work, chronically looking for love, and chronically dependent on cocaine. Lee (Barbara Hershey) is living with a successful painter (Max Von Sydow) who is her lover and aesthetic tutor. Once a part of this family but now an outsider is Mickey (Woody Allen), a TV director, Hannah’s first husband. Harried by hypochondria and a mania to find a transcendent faith for which he has no real capacity, Mickey is the typical fictional proxy for Allen himself, though in this film he shares equal time with the other characters.

All except Hannah are involved in a frenzied search for perfect earthly happiness, but while Mickey seeks consolation from religion, the others hunt their highs on the romantic chase. During the course of the film, Elliott begins an affair with Lee, who abandons her painter. This affair comes to grief due to Elliott’s pusillanimity; so he contentedly goes back to his wife, and Lee happily weds a nice professor from Columbia University. Holly goes through a series of setbacks in her career and love life, but finally becomes a successful writer and a seemingly balanced and addictionless person. Failing to find consolation in any theology and coming to accept the impermanence of life, Mickey falls in love with, and marries, Holly. He even succeeds in impregnating her, though doctors he consulted during his previous marriage assured him he was sterile. Love indeed conquers all.

The problems posited by this movie are real; the solutions are not. That Elliott finds his wife so serene, so emotionally sturdy, that he longs for her more chaotic, needier sister is believable. But that the marriage is instantly salvageable once Hannah declares her own vulnerability (in one brief crying jag) is not. Lee turns from one protective male (her painter) to another (her money manager) and this transition makes sad sense. But is her final choice of an English professor a sign of growth or further fickleness? We’ll never know, for Woody Allen draws the veil: in a hackneyed cinematic short-cut unworthy of him, he shows us the couple blissfully walking across campus grounds in a long-shot while music and a few words on the soundtrack sum up the relationship as blissful.

As for the third sister, we are shown nothing in Holly’s emotional make-up that would indicate that she has the equipment to be a perceptive writer. In fact, we are quite forcefully shown that she has bad taste in art, limited perceptiveness about the people around her, insensitivity to language (she prefers the noise of punk rock to the wittily worded songs of Cole Porter that Mickey tries to interest her in), and lacks the sort of obsessiveness about ideas and milieus that any dedicated writer must have to persist. (Think of Dylan Thomas, think of Scott Fitzgerald, think of . . . Woody Allen!) Allen throws us the bone of plausibility by having Holly declare that she’s learned all about dramatic structure from having worked on scenes in acting class. Gimme a break, Woody.

Mickey’s hypochondria is both believably and hilariously presented, and his search for a religion has a certain snotty and snobby amusement. Allen knows all about the hypochondriac’s lust for doctors’ prognoses, and their contradictory fear of having medical instruments stuck into various anatomical apertures. Mickey’s neurotic inflation of a slight hearing loss into a brain tumor and the subsequent deflation by the doctor’s verdict is all very well handled.

If Mickey’s search for faith is somewhat less well done, I think it’s because Allen cannot even begin to take religion with the seriousness that he brings to health and illness. The sequence in which Mickey goes through his Roman Catholic phase is worth examining because it shows how essentially amiable and inoffensive Allen’s satire is. After an interview with a skeptical priest (sympathetically portrayed), Mickey is given theological books to read, but we never see what becomes of those books. Instead, we see Mickey attending a beautiful High Mass replete with a first-rate boys choir, gorgeous stained glass, and impressive ceremony. Out on the street, he looks askance at some kitschy R.C. junk sold at a kiosk. Then he brings home his groceries, unloading on the kitchen table, in the following order, a crucifix, a missal, a kitschy icon of Christ, and finally, on top of the icon, a loaf of Wonder bread.

So much for religion. But note the mechanism of satire: Catholicism is successively identified with high art, low kitsch, junk food. This gets a knowing laugh from the audience. But compare this scene with one from Luis Bunuel’ s The Discrete Charm of the Bougeoise: a priest, suave and reasonable, goes to a cottage to comfort a gamekeeper on his deathbed. The gamekeeper confesses that many years ago he murdered the priest’s father, the gamekeeper employer. The priest compassionately forgives the murderer and conscientiously administers the last rites. Then he takes down a rifle from the wall and blows the gamekeeper’s brains out. So much for hating the sin but loving the sinner! This is the sort of satire of which Woody Allen is incapable. He puts down Catholicism for being unaesthetic (what about the High Mass?), but Bunuel shows religion as utterly impotent when challenged by human instinct. Bunuel, an ex-Catholic, takes his former faith seriously enough to want to give real offense to Catholics.

When Mickey comes to terms with life, he can only do so with the sort of shrug that any agnostic must give when accepting a world that has no meaning. Here is how Woody Allen dramatizes that acceptance. Mickey goes to a Marx Brothers movie, Duck Soup. He is shown watching a scene in which the brothers are dancing toward the camera and, apparently, beckoning to the viewer. By shutting off the mock-militaristic music on the Duck Soup soundtrack, Allen makes the zanies look as if they were silently inviting the viewer to join them in a dance celebrating life. (Actually, the brothers are ironically inviting the viewer to participate in a senseless war. Duck Soup is another ferocious satire!) The scene would work if only Allen were content to make his point visually. But instead he fills the soundtrack with Mickey’s desperate chatter about how life may be meaningless and end in nothingness, but what the heck, there are some awfully nice moments on the way to the grave, etc. If this is consolation, I’ll take despair. With the soundtrack turned off, Allen might have achieved an eloquently mysterious scene. As it is, his psychobabble drains any resonance out of his images.

Allen has retained one of his old skills and has developed a new one. He is still good at insulting the junk of modern culture. When Mickey is dragged by Holly to a punk rock club, he sits there transfixed by disgust, his very posture a protest. “What’s the matter with you!” Holly screams at him afterwards. “Don’t you like songs about extraterrestrial life?” Mickey responds, “Not when they’re performed by extraterrestrial life.”

Allen’s new talent is for presenting large family gatherings. This is no mean skill, for it requires extraordinary compositional sense, immaculate timing, the smooth handling of entrances and exits, an ability to choreograph intermingling groups, ease with actors, and a knack for communicating a family’s history through nuance. Allen has mastered all of this. True, he used Mia Farrow’s real mother (Maureen O’Sullivan) to play her mother, and her actual children to play her children, and her apartment to play her apartment; but having accurately set his scene, he still had to make it come messily alive. He succeeded. Allen understands that a large family, even when it includes inveterate screw-ups and semidopesters, can still communicate an aura of warmth and love simply because so many people have so much emotion invested in so many others. Interests intertwine, collide, coagulate, and solder. Everything threatens to fly out the window during the latest familial slugfest, yet dependency and memories and children keep pulling everything back into the living room. When the three sisters get together in the kitchen, they all talk at once and yet they hear each other perfectly. Allen, too, has heard his characters perfectly and lets us hear the very sound of family in their chatter.

It’s only when the family members are presented on their own, moving through love affairs and career adjustments toward definite solutions, that Allen’s ability to dramatize evaporates. And this is because he isn’t content to dramatize what he perceives might really happen to these individuals. Instead, he keeps shoving them toward happy solutions.

Why? The entertainment of Allen’s earliest films lay in the way he showed himself, the archtypal Jewish-intellectual wimp, in collision with an ungiving world — a world populated with bullying men, contemptuous and desirable women, ungovernable events, nagging parents, malevolently exfoliating ideas (Kant’s categorical imperative causing a panic at the corner deli when pastrami is universally ordered), and devouring, insensitive media (Howard Cosell covering an assassination as if it were a sports event). Though Woody Allen could never hope to defeat his enemies or even mitigate them, the wisecracks slipping out of the side of his mouth let us know that his defiance was unquenchable. Just as Russian intellectuals, suffocating under government repression, can maintain a state of mind that amounts to, internal exile, Allen, suffering from American boorishness and bitchery, maintained a state of internal chutzpah.

But the world has been exceedingly good to Woody. Some of his films have made a lot of money and most of them have been critically acclaimed. Audiences greet his appearance on screen like the arrival of an old friend. And he is one of the few filmmakers in the world who is allowed by the financial powers-that-be to make his movies exactly as he sees fit. Nobody trusts anybody but Woody Allen to make a Woody Allen movie.

But what kind of movie is Woody Allen to make when the sources of his creativity — feelings of embattlement and rejection — are contradicted by universal admiration? It’s hard to keep laughing at a hostile world when the world keeps breaking down your door with kindness. Has this led a talented filmmaker into prodding his characters in the direction of a happy ending even when a happy ending is rendered suspect by what has gone before? If so, it’s understandable. Yet, art, where is thy victory? And Woody, where is thy sting?


  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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