“A relationship, I think, is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies.”
“And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark”, the film’s protagonist candidly concedes. It’s this sort of quick-witted, fast-paced and refreshingly honest dialogue that defines the screenplay of Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. The opening scene, a short monologue which neatly frames personal worries with a Groucho Marx witticism, gives a remarkably accurate snippet of what is to come: lots and lots of talking. Thankfully, the talking is generously dispersed with comedy and carefully punctuated with self-reflection. I’ve always admired the way that Woody Allen films seem to finish on an unexpectedly profound moment, somehow reconciling the pedantic wondering of their characters with the multitude of signposted references to popular culture. The significance of this film for Allen’s career and the modern romantic comedy genre is difficult to overstate. It marks a shift from Allen’s earlier dabbling in slapstick humour and heralds the entry of a talented stand-up comedian into the world of innovative movie making.
The plot, like the life of its protagonist – Alvy Singer (Allen) – is a little chaotic. The narrative winds its way awkwardly back through his life to show us how it happened. “It”, in this case, is a break-up. Right from the start, we’re given the painful admission that “Annie and I broke up, and I still can’t get my head around it.” Alvy’s first communicated thoughts – which often break the fourth wall – quizzically reveal his pathological obsession with self-analysis (which later explains his affinity for psycho-analysis) and take us through selected memories of his childhood. We’re presented with the picture of someone deeply preoccupied with the big, impossible questions in life which never get the satisfactory answers they demand. These inclinations leave an impressionable young boy, and a recently-turned-40-year-old man, with floating feelings of futility. The scene is at least partly set: Alvy is a bit aimless and perennially shaky with human relationships, but he’s smart, funny and well-intentioned. It takes a serendipitous meeting with the one and only Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) at a tennis court to really get things going. Annie is the quirky, beautiful, composed match for Alvy and his nervously chatty ramblings. It’s a boy-meets-girl adventure with wit, charm and, I’m told, some trend-setting fashion on Keaton’s part. After an appealingly awkward conversation, Annie and Alvy strike up a natural friendship. Theirs is an important relationship with lots of spark and passion, but its romantic appeal fades when Alvy and Annie’s individual insecurities are amplified by each other’s. A year after their foreshadowed break-up, they reunite in the important setting of their romance, New York City. Alvy once again admires the beautiful Annie and laments the nature of relationships as “totally irrational and crazy and absurd”, but as something we go through simply because we need them.
Allen has a great tendency to frame his characters’ troubles, and to capture important lessons, with jokes. This is probably why Annie Hall was such an advancement for him: the humour isn’t just for laughter. The comedy with which Allen traverses such a comprehensive range of topics – all of which clearly carry significant personal interest for him – is remarkable. Take, for instance, his insecurities about Jewish identity (“the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers”) and annoyance with ineffective psycho-analysis (“I was in analysis with a strict Freudian and, if you kill yourself, they make you pay for the sessions you miss”). The film is a delightful, but carefully managed, extension of Allen’s earlier career as a joke writer for local newspapers. I should mention, though, that the film’s best comedy belongs to a famous balcony scene where subtitles appear to reveal Annie and Alvy’s actual thoughts (“he probably thinks I’m a yo-yo”, “I wonder what she looks like naked” etc.) in contrast to the pleasantly neutral comments of their small talk about the “aesthetic criteria” of photography.
The wonderful thing is that all this comedy, all this talking, comes together to make a really accessible point about everyday life. A good point of reference is actually the film’s working title, Anhedonia (a fancy word for the inability to experience pleasure). Annie’s preference for marijuana just before having sex, much to the disapproval of Alvy, serves as a nice representation of Allen’s point that we require artificially constructed moods to fully attain pleasurable experiences. Left to our own natural devices, we’re too insecure and troubled to ever feel entirely happy with things. It’s not that life is irreversibly depressing; it’s just that our joys are a little transient and easily drowned out by undercurrent anxiety, uncertainty and – in Alvy’s case – paranoia. Allen recreates the human condition as an ironic feeling that life is too short and too precious, despite it always feeling dissatisfying. Alvy’s neurotic troubles are a shining demonstration of this, but so is Annie’s personal policy of “flexibility”, and they both in their own ways call into question the sustainability of their relationship. Their relationship woes, in the backdrop of Alvy’s much bigger woes, conveys a discrepancy between the big questions in life and our day-to-day dilemmas that makes Annie Hall the kind of high calibre romantic comedy you wish Hollywood still made.