Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)


Life’s a slog.  Is slog a word?  It felt like the right usage in this case.  Mickey (Woody Allen) thinks life has lost all meaning, and I don’t know why that’s what I was left thinking about.  This movie isn’t supposed to be about Mickey.  He’s just a side character, but he’s so consumed in his own world and debating the meaning of life (like every Woody Allen film), that you wouldn’t get the sense he’s involved in someone else’s film.

Hannah and Her Sisters is hardly about Hannah.  It’s about the people in her life, her parents, her two sisters, her husband and her ex-husband (Mickey).

Hannah (played by Mia Farrow) is remarkable in how steady she is.  Nothing seems to faze her, and she’s there for everyone else.  The fact that she doesn’t seem to need anything is what drives her husband Elliot (Michael Caine) to stray and lust after Hannah’s sister, Lee.

Elliot and Lee begin a year long affair that almost gets out of Elliot’s control, though he never receives the comeuppance you might expect.

Hannah’s other sister is Holly, a manic former drug addict who bounces between catering, acting auditions and writing.  She is fairly insufferable early on, often butting heads with Hannah who is only trying to protect her.

This film is composed of what feel like a bunch of short films, broken up by a title card usually featuring a quote from the following story.  Basically everything takes place over the course of two years.  At the start of those two years, marked by a Thanksgiving dinner, Hannah is already married to Elliot and has two kids.

In a flashback we see that the seeds of Hannah’s and Mickey’s divorce probably began around the time they discovered Mickey was sterile.  They do end up having kids, however, through the aid of Mickey’s friend’s ammo.

Mickey remembers all this as he suffers through a deep depression, first believing he’s going to die and then, after receiving good medical news, nearly shooting himself with a rifle.

Mickey wanders the streets before going to a movie, and he decides he wants to enjoy life rather than wither in its shadow.  That’s when he runs into Holly again, and they hit it off, eventually getting married.

So that’s one story.  Another one is Holly as she gets her life in order and runs back into Mickey at the right time in her life.  She experiences stunning growth within this film, and it’s nice to see.

Hannah is always just there, helping people out and just… existing.  She doesn’t realize that her husband is sleeping with her sister, Lee, and she never finds out.

We follow Elliot as he embarks on the affair, and despite feeling guilty, he keeps on going with the sister.  Then Lee dumps him, and Elliot recalls their relationship fondly while embracing Hannah.  It’s made to look like a happy movie ending, but it’s creepy.

So everyone has thanksgiving dinner, and they’re all happy.

I really enjoyed this movie, but man it’s an odd one.  There’s a heavy use of voice over as we sit in the character’s heads.  We follow both sisters, Elliot and Mickey.

I’m in the middle of the fifth audiobook in the Game of Thrones series, and this reminded me of that.  In GoT, each chapter is told from a specific character’s point of view.  They often interact and overlap with other characters but we only get on perspective at a time.  That’s what Hannah and Her Sisters felt like.  We follow Elliot as he desperately lusts after Lee, and then we also get time in Lee’s headspace to learn what she thinks about all this.

Putting us in a character’s head like that is usually meant to help us identify with him or her.  We should feel empathy for these characters, and I can say I felt that way about all of them except for Elliot.  Instead, Elliot’s scenes helped me feel more empathy for Hannah, knowing that she has to deal with him.

Still, I find it funny that Mickey’s storyline has the most impact, at least to me.  He’s the only character who goes on such an internal journey of self-discovery.  He hardly interacts with other main characters, and it really doesn’t feel like he belongs in this story until the very end.  I get the sense that Woody Allen set out to write a film about these characters, and he thought he would play Hannah’s ex-husband.  Then he’s like, “what if he’s a hypochondriac?” in possibly a throwaway line.  But then he started to think what it would be like for someone like that after a divorce.  He began to flesh out Mickey’s story, and I think Woody just became more interested in that plot.

Then, for it to make some narrative sense, he had Mickey run back into Holly and they get together.  I really liked their story together, actually, because they both had to really grow as a person.

Actually, that’s what the story seems to be more about, Mickey/Holly vs. Elliot/Lee.  Mickey and Holly hate each other at first, but they both have yet to embark on they self-discovery tour.  Then they meet each other at the right time, and the fall in love, helping each other out in multiple ways.

With Elliot and Lee, it’s completely forced.  It doesn’t seem clear why Lee would fall for Elliot, and yet she does.  Their relationship is stuck in neutral the whole time, because with it being an affair, there’s really nowhere to go.  And it goes nowhere.  In the end they don’t stay together, and I don’t like Elliot.

Usually when you have a group or a company or something with the title “[name] and the [group name]” like Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, it’s usually more about the person with the name.  Another example is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

But here, it’s less about Hannah and more about her sisters, but the “her sisters” also refers to the umbrella under which fall Elliot, Mickey and her parents.

It’s a bunch of people coping with stuff and Hannah who knows what she wants and is busy enjoying life, I presume.  Even right away, in the first Thanksgiving scene, Hannah is very direct about enjoying her role as a mother and doing some acting to scratch the itch so she can go back to just being a mother.  She’s happy that way.

Elliot isn’t happy.  Lee was in a relationship with an old professor that seemed more like an intellectual version of Fifty Shades of Gray that makes you think, “boy that’s unhealthy.”  Holly was a drug addict who flew this way and that, drifting in the wind.  Her parents don’t seem happy, and Mickey is defined by his hypochondria, and he’s horribly stressed at work.

They all have growth they need to go through so they can be more like Hannah.  Mickey’s storyline is the one that explains this the most clearly, because he’s going through the same thing as the other characters, but he is just analyzing more closely.

Elliot might not know that by lusting after Lee he’s only running from death.  Same with everyone else.  Maybe that’s a stretch, but in screenwriting you’re taught that “stasis = death.”  The point being that the protagonist is in a place that he/she must escape from, whether they know it or not.  So each character is clawing to get out of their situation, and if they were to fail, it would be a symbolic death.  In Mickey’s case, it literally is death.  In Elliot’s case it might be a breakup with Lee and a divorce from Hannah, were she to discover the affair.  In his case that would be “death.”

I’m all over the place right now.  I have a bit of a cold, and I’m allergic to my sister’s cat, so I don’t feel so great right now, but I wanted to write about this movie so I could watch the next Woody Allen film.  Great, I’m talking about myself again, but here we are.

Good movie, I always wanted to see this one based on just the title.  I’m not entirely sure why, but I think it has to do with my affection for a movie called Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) directed by Joe Swanberg.

Up Next: Radio Days (1987), The Magnificent Seven (2016), September (1987)


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