movie_00278_hannah_and_her_sisters

In Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, the various main characters bounce nervously about in tightly-bound (and tightly-wound) concentric circles. From the black-and-white intertitles announcing the different movements of the film (“…nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands”), to the voiceover narration granted to not one but four different characters, to the myriad overlapping story arcs, Hannah and Her Sisters is a work of, among other things, structural brilliance. In this spirit, perhaps it is best to look at the women in the title– Hannah (Mia Farrow), and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest)– individually in an attempt to see the greater narrative that comes from three smaller and such lovely narratives.

Lee. Lee’s face graces the opening shot of the film, her body leaning against a wooden door frame. “God, she’s beautiful,” Michael Cain narrates in his instantly recognizable inflection. As if bashful from this unheard praise, Lee moves aimlessly to another open door, surveying the pleasantly chaotic bustle of Thanksgiving preparations in Hannah’s household. Even from these opening images we see Lee as a bit of a wanderer, a bit unsure of where to turn, and keeping herself between the sturdiness of walls and doorframes. Her much older boyfriend and ex-professor Frederick (a crusty Max Von Sydow) has customarily not accompanied her to this family party, deciding rather to keep himself locked away in his apartment where he can create art, ruminate on the baseness of contemporary culture, and practice general misanthropy. Not that Lee is without admirers at the party, as Elliot (Caine) follows her around like a lost puppy, spouting deeply personal book and record suggestions, and throwing in awkward, stammering compliments when he can. Elliot is Hannah’s husband, and no one– with the exception of Lee, who is embarrassed by how flattered she finds herself at the half-advances of her brother-in-law– seems to notice this potentially disastrous crush amidst the holiday hubbub. Many scenes and days later when Elliot throws himself on Lee and haplessly blurts out his infatuation for her, her feelings are a mixture of torrid excitement and extreme guilt. Elliot is a new man to lean on and to be her shepherd, less self-isolating and more outwardly doting than Frederick, but also her sister’s husband. Yet guilt proves to be the less urgent emotion, and Lee and Elliot begin an affair. “I need you, and I like it when you do things to me,” she purrs at him from under a bedspread.

Holly. Somewhere in Holly’s breathy voice there is a shrill, often barely detectable note of frustrated hysterics. The verge of tears is never far away, and her shaky footing on this precipice is most apparent when she is explaining her half-baked career plans to Hannah. She and her friend April (whose two-facedness Holly stews over silently) are starting a catering company. Holly had a cocaine addiction, compliments of her ex-husband, that she has kicked but she knows too well that it colors Hannah’s confidence in her. She is never able to overcome the humiliation and defeat of auditions she doesn’t get call-backs for. Meanwhile, Hannah is toasted at Thanksgiving for her decision to return, almost as an afterthought, to the theater and her terrific performance as Nora in A Doll’s House. Holly is struggling to get called back by available men as well as casting agents, as evidenced by David, whose swoon-worthy single-status in her eyes obscures his ridiculous pomposity. He ends up making a great mate for horrible April, who has no shame in drooling over the “organic” quality of his architectural achievements. During a particularly hilarious sequence in David’s car, as Holly increasingly becomes the third wheel while April and David wax pretentious in the front seat, a stunning montage of some of New York’s most glorious buildings greets our eyes. Allen’s love for the city proves to be as present and triumphant as ever, even as Holly’s misery escalates.

Hannah. Though she gets top billing in the title of the film, Hannah is the most understated and unassuming of the characters (and, it should be noted, the only sister who does not narrate in voice-over). In many ways, she is the sane backbone around which all the more flashy plot elements revolve. This is not to say that Hannah should be underestimated, as her sagely demeanor and concerned eyes have a slow-burn effect throughout the film. If anything, Hannah’s true dilemma is being overestimated by those around her. She is the perfect being who needs nothing from others, or at least this is what the characters who are too plagued by their own self-absorption to realize otherwise assume. (And in Woody Allen films, there are plenty of characters plagued by their own self-absorption.) Elliot feels emasculated by Hannah’s strength of character, and he wants to be validated by a needier woman. The sisters’ parents see Hannah as the true bread-winner of the bunch. Holly idolizes Hannah, and tries to emulate her successful acting career. And has Mickey Sachs been mentioned yet? He’s the final factor in this convoluted equation. Played by Allen at his most nebbishly neurotic, Mickey is Hannah’s sterile, hypochondriac ex-husband, still partly in love with Hannah for lack of anything better to do. So Hannah is put on a pedestal. Which makes it all the more heartbreaking when she tells Elliot, her voice sad and wavering, “I have tremendous needs!”

These three stories weave in and out to create a tapestry gilded with the anxious and nuanced emotions that only an incredibly close—and an incredibly messed-up—family could have. Allen’s technique is to simplify this jumble of infidelity and self-defeat and damage control by focusing on all three points as a way of better expressing the triangle. Almost in homage to this technique the three sisters are brought together for a luncheon at a late point in the film. Lee is stricken with guilt over her ongoing affair with Elliot. Hannah is sad and confused by Elliot’s emotional distance and unwillingness to communicate with her. Holly has come from yet another dismal audition. It’s not a good day for a catch-up lunch. Yet what results is one of the most beautiful scenes in Allen’s career as a director. Hannah and her sisters sit at a small round table, the camera circling steadily around them as their conversation becomes increasingly heated and embittered. Holly snaps at Hannah for constantly cutting her down, while Hannah tries to dissuade her from yet another spontaneous career choice. Lee can barely keep her voice from breaking. The camera continues to circle. Though the words are harsh and the tragedy of each woman’s situation is at its most transparent, somehow a fierce intimacy remains and even builds in intensity. These women are sisters, and ultimately, when all the resentment and self-loathing duplicity has come to the fore, their lives are still painfully and lovingly intertwined.

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