26 December 2007

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

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Written & Directed by: Woody Allen

Grade: A

Hannah and Her Sisters is one of Woody Allen's many penetrating cinematic analyses of the contemporary culture and his own kind: affluent, intellectual and neurotic New Yorkers. It might be his finest as well, although with such a strong catalog of films it's difficult to ascribe such superlatives to any individual Allen movie.

The film, a masterpiece of ensemble acting—Allen's mastery as a director of actors is often and unfairly overlooked—is built around a collection of spouses, siblings, friends and in-laws on the cusp of mid-life crises, each with a conspicuous lacking of varying kinds: Dianne Wiest, who steals the show with a performance so palpably nervous, insecure and strung-out that it approaches Woody Allen levels, lacks the direction of a career or relationship; Allen himself lacks the comfort and security of spiritual certainty; while Michael Caine, who won an Oscar for his performance, and Barbara Hershey lack romantic satisfaction in their respective relationships. It lunges them, ultimately, into an affair, following an awkward courtship (brilliantly executed), even though Caine is married to Hershey's sister, the titular Hannah (Mia Farrow).

Beginning at one Thanksgiving, that American, non-denominational celebration of family togetherness, and ending at another—with one more in between—the characters set out on chaotic, destructive attempts, doomed to failure, to fill those voids in their lives. The character arcs follow a parabolic trajectory: a plunging descent into abjection, followed by a redeemed return to originating normalcy. It is at once distancing and inviting, alternatingly pushing us away with its alienating chapter titles and drawing us in with its intimate, multiple point-of-view voice-over narration, a parallel to the characters' vacillating behavior towards one another.

One of Hannah and Her Sisters' driving dilemmas is, is "finding the right person" so important that it morally permits the destruction of families and the devastation of individual people? Though released before Allen's very public personal troubles, as a tale of interfamilial infidelity and betrayal Hannah and Her Sisters is, in hindsight, a personal working through of this question for Allen, a veiled, disturbing and piercingly autobiographical confessional of lust and domestic dissatisfaction. It seems, now, no accident that Allen cast himself as Farrow's ex-husband and she as an actress garnering raves for her portrayal of Ibsen's Nora; it seems as though he was practically begging Farrow to get the hint and leave him before he lost control of himself, advice that unfortunately went unheeded.

Though everyone gets a happy ending in the film—or at least deceptively happy, as it's tough to believe any of these characters could have lasting and meaningful relationships, evidenced at least by the ambiguously optimistic revelation that concludes the picture—Hannah and Her Sisters preaches that getting love right takes a couple of tries. "Boy," Allen naively observes in the film, "love is really unpredictable." The film is rife with divorcees and relationships that are like drinking glasses teetering on the edge of a coffee table, waiting for one slight push to send them on a shatter-bound course to the floor. Even the relationship between Hannah and her sisters' parents, a superficially pleasant and loving old couple with a seemingly happy marriage enduring through the decades, is exposed as a mere front behind which a couple of bitterly jealous and contemptuous old-timers have hidden their animosity and extramarital trysts for years.

But Hannah and Her Sisters concerns more than the mere crises of the heart and body, branching out to explore a crisis of the soul as well. (Allen would expand on this religious-philosophical aspect in his subsequent masterpiece and Hannah's companion piece, Crimes & Misdemeanors.) Allen plays a hypochondriac whose brief confrontation with mortality sends him hurtling on a seriocomic quest for meaning, including a stab at Catholicism that hilariously manifests itself in the seemingly compelled purchase of not only crucifixes but Wonder Bread and Hellman's. Despite its levity, the spiritual journey builds to a gorgeous and moving climax in which Allen, in a moment of rock-bottom despair, unlocks the meaning of life via a screening of Duck Soup. The secret to enjoying life, Allen tells us, is in finding the strength to enjoy living, God or no God, lover or no lover. It's a much needed lesson for any Woody Allen character—any modern human being, that is.

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