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Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #50: Annie Hall (1977)

Note: this post has been modified from a previously published post

Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton

“A nervous romance.” It might just be the most accurate tagline a film ever had, perfectly summing up not only the relationship between Alvy (Woody Allen) and Annie (Diane Keaton), but also the on-screen persona of Woody Allen. This is an unusual romantic comedy, running counter to many of the conventions of the genre. It’s self-aware and self-reflexive, it’s non-linear and, most importantly, it ends with the couple apart. What Allen gives us is not a fairytale about why love works, but a deconstruction of the ways that sometimes love doesn’t work.

It begins with Alvy telling us that “‘I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’ That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.” It’s most certainly true of his relationship with Annie, the end of which he is lamenting as the film opens. We see the entire relationship play out, from their first meeting and the fun, getting-to-know-you days, to the impasse point where the relationship is either going to become serious or isn’t, which is when Alvy begins to get nervous. He loves Annie (“I lurve you, I loave you, I luff you”) but doesn’t want to make the commitment, although he tries to keep her from realizing it. She moves in with him, then realizes that he didn’t really want her to move in with him. He deflects his own neuroses by making her self-conscious, encouraging her to take adult education classes and start therapy. However, these two things only serve to make the relationship more unstable because she becomes more assertive, less malleable and he begins to lose his grip on her. They break up, they get back together and, eventually, break up again. In a lot of ways, they’re perfect for each other (this fact is apparent in a scene between Alvy and another woman in which he attempts to recreate the experience of cooking lobster with Annie, to less than stellar results), but she’s still discovering who she is as a person while he already knows who he is, and so they become less compatible as the relationship progresses.

Allen wholly eliminates the fourth wall, making us more confidante than audience. He directly addresses us several times, imploring us to back him up. He breaks down the barrier between the characters and the story by having them wander into flashbacks and fantasy sequences, observe them as they’re going on and comment on how they’re going. He makes reference to the way this film is structured, telling us at the beginning that his mind tends to jump all over the place (as the story will in terms of chronology), and making the first time we see Alvy and Annie together a scene from the middle of their relationship. They’re going to a movie but find out when they’re buying tickets that it has already started. Alvy is distraught and calls it off, reminding Annie that he can’t start a movie in the middle.

But even without its self-reflexivity, this is still a film that can be set apart from other romantic comedies in terms of tone and characterization. Allen perfectly captures the awkwardness of trying to have a conversation with someone you just met when Alvy and Annie carry on a conversation about photography while subtitles show us what they're really thinking; and he’s effective at showing how Alvy pulls Annie closer with one hand, while keeping her at arm’s length with the other, usually using passive-aggressive humour to mask what he’s doing (“Whose idea was it?” he asks with regards to her moving in after she accuses him of thinking she’s trying to trap him. “Mine,” she says. “But I approved it immediately.”). The characters are nicely layered, with humanity and intelligence sandwiched between various neuroses. Annie, as played by Diane Keaton, has become a touchstone for female characters in comedies, although the “Annie Hall type” has mutated through the years, retaining the fidgets and foot-in-mouth moments but losing much of the intelligence and charm. Keaton is perfect as Annie, which in a sense is a shame because she’s a great actress but has sort of become stuck in this persona, still playing variations on this character today, although now the character usually comes in the form of a meddling mother.

It goes without saying that this is a very funny movie, the funniest parts coming when it moves out of its New York locale to Los Angeles, where Allen mercilessly satirizes Hollywood. He has a friend who drives around in his convertible with a special hood in order to keep his skin youthful. He goes to a party where the guests only talk about arranging meetings (“He gives good meeting,” one says to another with admiration), and one (played by Jeff Goldbloom) makes a phone call in order to be reminded of what his mantra is. Allen’s feelings on the soullessness of Los Angeles in general, but Hollywood specifically (“They give out awards for everything. Adolf Hitler, Best Dictator”) are obvious, but nonetheless funny, just as his love for New York is obvious but nonetheless touching, and it’s telling that the city is so adoringly framed given that Annie – now gone Hollywood – tells him that he’s the human equivalent of New York. This film, which reverberates with touches of autobiography, is perhaps just one giant exercise in mental masturbation (“Don’t knock it,” Alvy tells Annie, “it’s sex with someone I love”) on Allen’s part, but what can I say? I’m a sucker for his brand of self-deprecating narcissism.

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