Annie Hall: And the Desperate Attempt to Love

Annie Hall’s original title was set out to be “Anhedonia,” which is a mental disfunction that prevents one from feeling pleasure in normally pleasurable activities, but what Woody Allen meant by it is trying to love and failing miserably, finding in romance none of the pleasure and warmth that most people do. That’s Alvy Singer, hopeless romantic with a mortal fear of love, and a certain inability to experience it unconditionally. Woody Allen, in his first film after almost a decade of filmmaking to “sacrifice some of the laughs for a story about human beings,” attempts not only to experience love but also define it; is it just carnal lust? Does it fade? Whose fault is it? And most importantly, can it even be defined?

During Woody Allen’s first years as a filmmaker, all of his movies were wacky comedies that very rarely betrayed his beliefs and pessimism towards life and always kept a lighthearted, casual manner about them; films like Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death were funny and silly, and exactly what Woody felt comfortable with at the time, getting a lot of laughs, and very easily. But with Annie Hall, he ventured into uncharted seas and made the conscious decision to sacrifice some of the comedic aspects of the film for a story about human beings and one that directly speaks to them; a bold move that eventually proved fruitful and introduced the world to a new, more mature Woody Allen that forever changed his screen presence, while ironically, still being one of his funniest films ever. You notice it right from the start, when he is directly speaking to the camera, something he did because, and I quote, “I felt many of the people in the audience had the same feelings and the same problems. I wanted to talk to them directly and confront them.” In the first sequence of Annie Hall, Alvy Singer is telling a couple of old jokes but not laughing, then revealing that he recently broke up with his girlfriend, Annie Hall, the character the film is named after.

To discuss his relationship with Annie, he goes back to the roots of everything, which is of course the trademark influence of psychoanalysis on Woody’s work, and examines everything from his childhood and upbringing, his Jewish identity to all of his ex-relationships and marriages before finally settling on his relationship with Annie after a series of flashbacks and examining where “did the screw-up come.” Annie Hall’s structure is nothing short of genius, I feel very tempted to call it “meta” but it really isn’t that either, it just chaotically jumps all over its timeline but also in a very precise manner, obviously the influence of Fellini’s Eight and a Half, which Woody himself cited as a major inspiration. What makes Annie Hall the masterpiece it is, however, is the way it constantly breaks the wall between film and audience; this is a story that everybody can relate to and Woody was going to make sure that everyone would. This effect starts right from the start when Alvy directly talks to the camera and repeatedly happens throughout the film: Alvy asking the audience what they would do about annoying guys in movie lines, asking passerby’s how they maintain a healthy relationship, and asking old ladies why love fades; this is a story that includes everyone, and everyone is indeed included.

Technically, Annie Hall’s entire success is due to its script. While talking about the film, Roger Ebert makes an excellent point, “Few viewers probably notice how much of Annie Hall consists of people talking, simply talking. They walk and talk, sit and talk, go to shrinks, go to lunch, make love and talk, talk to the camera, or launch into inspired monologues like Annie's free-association as she describes her family to Alvy.” Annie Hall has both great dialogue and inconspicuous delivery, so much so that it instantly feels relatable, and even its gags feel like ones an acquaintance might crack casually, in contrast with Woody’s earlier work, which was definitely more surreal, for lack of a better word. Annie Hall’s shorts are far longer than the average film, allowing the viewer to focus more on what is spoken rather than jumping from shot to shot; there is also no score to the film, something that is the influence of Bergmann on Woody, with the sole exception of the song Diane Keaton sings twice during the film, which only works to intensify her charming effect on the audience.

Even while crafting a very intricate character for himself, Diane’s performance as Annie Hall, and her character as well, steal the show. All of Alvy’s relationships fail directly or indirectly because of his attempts to have control. His character is quite tyrannical in many aspects and always attempts either to shape or control the relationship, and absolutely refuses to adapt himself. In his attempts to shape Annie Hall into his idea of the ideal woman, he completely loses control over her as she emerges stronger than ever, but in her own whimsical manner. The film’s ending, while not exactly happy, is more of a relief than anything; it makes the audience feel like they truly witnessed something, from start to end, and while it may not deliver satisfaction, it certainly gives closure.

Annie Hall was not only a turning point for Woody Allen’s career, but for comedy in general. If you want to get a feel of just how impactful it was in 1977, it completely swept the Oscars that year, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress for Keaton, and that’s in the year the original Star Wars came out!


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