I’m taking another day break from Montaigne, which might become a more frequent occurrence now as I transition from riffing off of his work to writing personal essays in his style, without his words. Today is a holiday and therefore a day for gatherings, and I know most people aren’t having them today. But the normal rituals put me in mind of a movie that begins and ends with holiday gatherings, Woody Allen’s 1986 masterpiece “Hannah and Her Sisters.”
I think people who want to cancel Woody Allen at this point are fully justified, and I’m not opposed to the idea of putting artists who grossly violate human beings into early retirement. But I’m going to ask for a special waiver in the case of Hannah, because it goes a long way to making the case that Woody is an extremely dark character. The movie basically predicts the road ahead for Mia Farrow in the next seven years, and if for nothing more than the forensic value, it’s worth preserving.
There are other reasons to watch the movie, of course. It’s funny in some extremely inventive ways. Sometimes Woody is guilty of letting only his alter ego make the wry observations, but here every character is in on the gig. The arguments between Hannah’s mother and father, in particular, are incredibly harsh but insightful. And it’s an amazing collection of characters and performances. Both Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest won Oscars for their roles, but so too could have Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Maureen O’Sullivan and, especially, Max Von Sydow. And that’s not even the full list of memorable turns. Sam Waterson, Carrie Fisher, Tony Roberts, Daniel Stern, Lloyd Nolan and Julie (Marge Simpson) Kavner turned into brilliant cameos. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lewis Black and John Turturro made appearance too.
Most shocking for contemporary viewers is the fact that nearly all of Mia Farrow’s children, including Soon-Yi, are in the film, which is hard to watch. But that’s exactly why the movie is still essential viewing. You can see from the film’s first frame that Woody Allen desired, consciously or unconsciously, to destroy Mia Farrow and her family. His contempt for her comes through in the numerous lines from multiple characters calling her stand-in Hannah too perfect, who lives beyond the ability of any normal human to emulate, or even just support. Just as Larry David’s character in “Curb Your Enthusiasm” is appealing to those close to him because his awfulness makes them feel better about themselves, Hannah is such an angelic figure that she drives everyone around her insane and eager to harm her in horrific ways.
Woody bifurcates himself into two lead characters in the movie (possibly three if you count Von Sydow’s Frederick, but that’s not important at this point) and they take turns being Hannah’s husband. Mickey fails as Hannah’s first spouse because of a low sperm count and, apparently, because the couple asks his best friend Norman (Tony Roberts) to donate sperm for IVF, and this drives a wedge between them. It’s handled rather abruptly and unsatisfactorily, but I’m sure Woody didn’t feel like dwelling on his real issues with Mia head on at that time.
For that, he brings on the second husband, Elliott (Michael Caine), who opens the movie with the most out-of-his mind case of infatuation (for Hannah’s sister Lee, played by Barbara Hershey) that I’ve ever seen on film. It’s one of Woody Allen’s most brilliant set pieces. What Elliott is doing in these early scenes is objectively monstrous. But it’s also, for anyone who’s felt a rush of passion completely beyond their rational ability to control, impossible to condemn. Elliott behaves exactly like a stupid 15 year old boy suffering his first crush, and he has the same awkwardness of a teenager, which makes him oddly appealing. It’s a testament to Caine’s acting that he can keep Elliott likable while behaving reprehensibly by any social standard, and the movie never brings him to account for it. He isn’t even forced to suffer through the kind of guilt trip you would expect for a man who betrays his wife so viciously.
Instead, the mid-movie lectures about their crumbling marriage focus on Hannah, and how she gives everyone the impression of having no vulnerability and needing no one’s support. We get to see Mia Farrow basically apologize for being strong and caring for everyone, for sacrificing her own needs for everyone else’s. It’s brutal to watch — but I also find it amazing that Mia didn’t read this script and freak out at Woody, just like her character Hannah did when her other sister Holly writes a play that condemns her invulnerability. Maybe Woody slyly pre-empted Mia’s attacks by making the expected counterattack another layer in the film.
Eventually Lee is overcome with guilt for what she’s done to her big sister. She doesn’t confess, but she does dump Elliott and move on to a new boyfriend. Elliott doesn’t confess his sins either. He finally gaslights Hannah sufficiently enough to elicit some vulnerability in her, at which point he shrugs and returns. He didn’t end up annihilating Hannah, as he wished at the beginning of the film, but he does get to make her bleed just enough that she requires his care, which allows him to feel noble for his newly needed emotional support.
Hannah, at the end of the film, seems content in her reborn marriage with Elliott. She gets to throw another Thanksgiving gathering that this time includes her ex-husband newly married to Holly. It’s Woody pulling one last unconscious act of gaslighting on Mia’s Hannah — see, you were just sensing your ex-husband forming a bond with your sister, you shouldn’t have been worried about your current husband running off with your other sister. Little does she know that Elliott, fresh off his chase of Lee, now is eyeing the then 12 year old Soon-Yi … but maybe that’s just in my imagination. Ahem.
In truth, I find the last scene of “Hannah and Her Sisters” cloying and impossible to accept. The movie really needed a “Rosemary’s Baby” like send off, where all the characters gather and agree that they’ve hated Hannah all along and wish her to join them in a ritual murder so she could share in their depravity. But Woody, probably sensing that he had a very rare commercial hit on his hands, gave in to Hollywood and even brought Mickey’s dead sperm back to life.
That’s ok, it doesn’t ruin the movie. In fact, it’s better in a way that the movie retains the same feckless tone throughout. It makes it easier to understand how Woody could later contemplate and act out in such reprehensible ways. He made it obvious in the movie, after all, he’s beyond responsibility. He’s going to chase his darkest whims and let them do their worst. Because, in the end, he always gets away with it.