Hannah and Her Sisters might just be the funniest family film ever made.
Every character is so aware of his/her flaws, hamartia in dramatic terminology, that it makes the different crises they are going through all the more funny and pitiful at the same time. In the tragedies of Shakespeare, hamartia often led to a miserable downfall of the character thereby achieving a moral objective of the play. Woody Allen plays around with this very perception of tragedies and he builds a comedy out of it that is very much aware of the tragedy, both circumstantial and existential, that it pokes fun at. There is no tragic downfall, like Faust in Doctor Faustus being condemned to live out his eternal existence in hell, instead the film and its characters arrive at a compromise, which is that life goes on regardless of one’s feelings and thoughts, and hence an awareness of death and the seeming triviality of life can coexist harmoniously with feelings of hope and joie de vivre.
Hannah and Her Sisters is one of Woody’s warmer films, composed like an episodic novel, with one-sentence inter-titles signifying the beginning of an episode in the lives of its characters. The inter-titles go from funny to morbid, from literal to metaphoric, from profound to frivolous, and in between, two years and three thanksgiving dinners in the lives of Hannah, her sisters Lee and Holly, her current husband Elliot, and her ex-husband Mickey are covered. The writing is brilliant, innovative, and full of funny little surprises at every twist and turn. Woody’s characters often have a lot to say and are quite witty, and this film is the perfect archetype to understand the different kinds of wit that his characters exhibit — neurotic, cynical, pragmatic, sleazy, erudite, morbid, bohemian, and Jewish.
As an inspiration for Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody cites Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina that opens with this line: All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The point that Woody makes throughout the film is that the roots of any sort of unhappiness lies in unfulfilled relationships which then manifest into feelings of extramarital desire, dread of a life poorly and solitarily lived, and despair from the seeming impossibility of future happiness. At its core, this film is an exploration of the intertwining of relationships within and on the periphery of a family. It starts with Elliot’s (Hannah’s current husband’s) growing infatuation for Lee and ends with Mickey finding his love in Holly. In between, Lee moves out of her relationship with a tortured artist who oddly enough was also her guru of sorts, and Holly falls out with her best friend and catering partner after they both fall for the same man. Hannah, a mother of multiple kids and successful stage actress, is the stable center-point of this plot around which the lives of all of these characters revolve. There are intense feelings of love and betrayal at work here, and Woody treats them as helpless urges that are beyond the realm of moral self-policing.
Because of the profound themes at play here, it should not be misunderstood that the film is a serious dramatic one; it is very much a comedy, filled with moments ranging from big laughs to little chuckles. The themes of love, sex, religion, and death have been Woody’s lifelong obsessions and different variations of these themes fuel the different narratives in the many extraordinary films he has made till date. In his oeuvre, Hannah and Her Sisters fall at a place and time when he had sort of warmed up to the idea of life and the possibility of hope, abandoning his trademark cynicism regarding and critique of contemporary culture that marked his earlier films. We get a glimpse of this during the breakdown of Mickey, the anxious insecure character played by Woody, following his failed search for the meaning of life, who at the end exclaims out loud, “I just felt that in a godless universe, I didn’t want to go on living.” The whole film can be thought of as one of those jazz pieces with which he opens his films — heavy in content but whimsical in mood. To add to the whimsy, there are numerous one-liner punches interspersed throughout the film that are so ingeniously written that they can be complete jokes in itself even in the absence of the film’s context.
One of the prime reasons for why the film is so immensely good is its stellar cast comprising of Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Max Von Sydow, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Weist, Carrie Fisher, Sam Waterston (uncredited), Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Woody Allen himself. Michael Caine has never been this interesting to watch as he brings to Elliot a sort of nervous flimsiness and romantic desire that is as physiologically expressive as it is verbally, which makes his predicament all the more real and pathetic. Mia Farrow’s understated charm as Hannah has both an intellectual and emotional appeal to it that makes the scene where she talks about feeling lost in her life so much more heart-rending. Hershey’s acting is effortless in her turn as Hannah’s easy-going sensuous sister Lee. Von Sydow, a master of dramatic acting, as Lee’s tortured artist boyfriend has an impeccable sense of comic delivery. Yet the one who steals the show is Dianne Weist as Hannah’s neurotic sister Holly, an aspiring actress, singer, and writer. She can hardly finish a sentence without explaining herself in between. She fumbles, hesitates, apologises, excites and upsets herself over conversations. Weist plays her with a sincerity and self-awareness that is profoundly heartbreaking and genuinely funny at the same time — a performance that combines Caine’s expressiveness, Farrow’s appeal, Hershey’s naturalness, and Sydow’s seriocomic delivery.
Like Annie Hall and Manhattan, this film too is a fervent love letter to New York. An architect (Sam Waterston) shows Holly and her best friend around to some of his favourite buildings in the city. The love that we see in his eyes tells us how much Woody treasures this city. For Woody, this love is not just restricted to the inanimate; there is an enormous amount of affection for the women of the city too, with all their raw, insecure, and familial energy. Hannah and Her Sisters is his heartfelt attempt to capture this energy and by God, what an absolutely terrific attempt it is.