List of Shame File #10: Hannah and Her Sisters

I feel slightly embarrassed that it has taken me this long to see Hannah and Her Sisters. But there was a time when I thought if you’d seen one Woody Allen movie (Annie Hall), you’d seen them all. In many ways, that is still the case. Allen loves inserting his neurotic personality into each movie he makes, and while it has the tendency to be hilariously over the top, it can get tiresome very quickly. Luckily for Allen, he is extremely talented at populating his movies with characters so real and memorable that we hardly fault him for wanting to be around them as well.

Hannah and Her Sisters is a film about just that: Hannah (Mia Farrow) the oldest sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest in an Oscar winning role) in the middle, and Lee (Barbara Hershey) the youngest. I don’t recall the film ever stating definitively the birth order of Holly or Lee, but again, Allen does such an amazing job writing these characters I can’t see them being any other way. Hannah embodies the independence and giving nature that comes with being the respected and well-loved eldest child. Both Holly and Lee look up to her, seek her approval, and chide her when they think Hannah’s well meaning advice is really just a way for her to knock them down a few pegs. This is especially the case with Holly who is the wild child of the bunch.

But the story isn’t just about the sisters, it’s also about the men in their lives. Specifically, how the men in Hannah’s life, end up in her sisters’ lives. Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine) is in love with Lee, and struggles with his lust over her and his feelings for Hannah. Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) is a hypochondriac, always at the doctor checking the status of his latest mole, cough, or side pain. He had a brief affair with Holly that ended in disaster.

The film studies these characters in a collection of well headlined vignettes, each chapter of the story described with white letters on a black screen in such a way that seems slightly romanticized (“Lucky I ran into you,”The Big Leap,” “Summer in New York”). Like pages from a book or conversations we have with friends about love and life, Allen attempts to piece together the meaning of it all, and at the same time pokes fun at anyone who thinks they have the answer. By the end of the film Allen and his character Mickey have come to accept that there is no way of knowing anything, that the present is alway better enjoyed now than worrying about the future or remembering the past.

Hannah and Her Sisters shines when it focuses on the relationship between Hannah, Holly, and Lee. There is a scene where the three of them meet for lunch, Hannah is having difficulties understanding Elliot’s strange behavior, Lee is devastated over her affair with Elliot, and Holly is struggling to make it as an actress. Holly says she needs to borrow more money, to which Hannah is more than understanding, but wants reassurance that Holly will use it in a proactive way. Holly explains she wants to become a writer, that she has a few good stories she thinks would make excellent screenplays. Hannah offers some of her sisterly advice and Holly takes offense.

Nowhere else in the film is the relationship and power dynamics of these women expressed so well. The camera closes in on the table, constantly circling as they argue. Holly, the defiant middle sister, always thinking of herself as the loser of the group and constantly fighting for confidence from herself and others. Hannah the wise and rational older sister, only wants what’s best for everyone but doesn’t allow anyone to do the same for her. And young Lee struggling to make everyone stop fighting on the brink of tears over her guilt and shame.

This film is considered a comedy and there are indeed some funny moments, but there is also some sadness in these characters’ stories as well. And while each character is given their “happy” ending, in some ways we’re unsure about some of their true feelings over the way things worked out. Allen received an Academy Award for this screenplay, and the dialogue and performances alone are reason enough to see what Roger Ebert has called Allen’s best film to date.