Recently I was thinking about who I would characterize as favorite directors versus directors that I simply respect. In the latter category, I would stick the likes of Quentin Tarantino, The Coen Brothers, and Wes Anderson. Because truth be told, I do not always like or even enjoy all their films, but I can still appreciate them. They have their own unique artistic visions when it comes to making movies and that comes out of the fact that they know the lineage that they are derivative of. That’s something that cannot be taken lightly.
I think I would same the same of the work of Woody Allen, and he truly is a special icon of film. There’s no saying that his work is not original because each film bears his mark, but it also takes cues from the past.The utmost compliment I can give Hannah and Her Sisters is the fact that it might be one of my favorite Allen films thus far, behind Annie Hall. It does noticeably take cues from the likes of Bergman and Bunuel however, but that does not detract from its own charms.
It begins and continues throughout with rather arbitrary inter-titles written in white letters over a black background. But it’s the perfect embodiment of Allen’s style of writing to go along with his typically anachronistic scores that nevertheless elevate the charm of his films. What follows is an engaging storytelling set piece extended over three Thanksgiving dinners with Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her two sisters. Holly (Diane Wiest) is the aspiring actress, who has run a catering service on the side while fighting a drug problem and trying to figure out her love life. Lee (Barbara Hershey) is a natural beauty, who lives with an older intellectual named Frederick (Max Von Sydow). She has also unwittingly made a conquest of her sister’s respectable husband Elliot (Michael Caine), who nevertheless gets quite nervous in her presence.
This is a film about their families — their interconnected lives that constantly fluctuate and change dynamically with every passing month and holiday. Their lives go from the invariably awkward, to the tragic, and finally, find their perfect equilibrium. The voices inside their heads are constantly active with fears, thoughts, and desires.
What’s perhaps most striking about this film is the great depth of the cast. Maureen O’Sullivan stars next to her real-life daughter. Carrie Fisher makes an appearance as Holly’s friend and rival. Even Daniel Stern, Julie Louis Dreyfuss, and Allen regular Tony Roberts pop up in various moments. Perhaps most spectacularly of all, Allen himself commands the spotlight as anxious hypochondriac Mickey Sacks. Essentially it’s the character that Allen always takes on, but in this case, he stuck himself in almost a B-plot. He gets his chance to swim in his fatalism, pessimism, and philosophical dialogues about God and religion. In fact, it is quite reminiscent of Bergman in this respect, but from a uniquely Allenesque perspective. His awkward jokes (eg. I had a great time tonight it was like the Nuremberg trials) make me crack a smile or let out a genuine chuckle in spite of myself. Bergman would never do that to me, but Allen enters that territory while going so far as casting von Sydow in a slight nod to his Swedish hero.
But really all of this is set to the greater backdrop of the familial drama. That’s where the meat and potatoes of this story lie and in this dynamic, there is a lot of genuinely great moments. One of the most memorable is also one of the most difficult when the three sisters gather together over lunch and their relationships seem to be falling apart in front of our eyes. As it goes with the passage of time, things eventually turn out okay and another holiday gathering comes. Each sister is content with where they’re at and so are their spouses. It’s probably one of the most upbeat Allen movies I can think of, if only it were not besmirched by his own personal life. But that’s a dialogue for a different time. After all, this film is really about Hannah and Her Sisters.