Neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer falls in love with the ditsy Annie Hall.
Boy meets girl. Boy introduces girl to death-obsessed literature, Swedish melodrama and the analyst's couch. Boy suffocates girl. Girl goes her own way. However you describe it, Annie Hall remains one of the most charming, bittersweet, beautifully played, funny love stories ever committed to celluloid. Much closer in spirit to Woody Allen's prose humour and nightclub act than any of his previous films, the romance between neurotic comic Alvy Singer (Allen) and ditzy singer Annie Hall (Keaton) marks the intersection between The Early Funny Ones and The Later Serious Ones. As before, the one liners flowed thick and fast but the frenetic pace and broad tone were replaced by a gravitas and a check list of concerns ó the fragility of love, sex, psychoanalysis, New York vs. countryside, Jewishness ó that have dominated the output of Allen's art ever since.
How autobiographical the movie is has always been a moot point. Yes, Allen dated Diane Keaton. Yes, Keaton's real name is Diane Hall. Yes, she wore her own (subsequently trend-setting) wardrobe for the role. And although it is lovely to think that Allen and Keaton really had run-ins with runaway lobsters, it's probably fair to say the autobiographical content is more in atmosphere than incident (co-writer Marshall Brickman had an equal hand in the screenplay), especially the intimate tone created by Allen's onscreen presence and direct to camera addresses.
If the personal feel is a fallacy, the observations into building and sustaining a relationship ring remarkably true, be they on the awkwardness of small talk, the dread of meeting the family or the breakdown of intimacy and communication. The couple's shift from initial fumbling to terminal uncertainty is deftly mapped out by the central performances. Keaton's ditzy ingenue ("Lah-di-dah") is one of the great comedic creations, her growing self-awareness completely believable. Often overlooked as an actor, Allen handles Alvy's growing insecurity, twisting Annie's every move into an act of disenchantment, with aplomb and sensitivity, light years away from the slapstick mugging of Bananas (1971) and Sleeper (1973).
Away from the romantic elements, Annie Hall is marked by dichotomy: between the Jewish and the gentile ó on their first meeting Annie tells Alvy "You're what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew!", a sentiment later punctuated by a fabulous sight gag with the old woman seeing Alvy dressed in Orthodox get-up and between New York and Los Angeles. If Allen is unsurprisingly satirical about LA ("They're always giving out awards! Best Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler"), even taking the ultimate revenge on Californians by sneezing on the coke, he is equally barbed about the pretensions of New York, a world where Academic journals Dissent and Commentary have merged to become Dissentary and pseuds can only be silenced by Marshall McLuhan lurking behind a movie poster (Allen originally wanted Fellini to confront the bore but the maestro was filming) After Love And Death (1975). Allen's initial idea was to place two hip New Yorkers at the centre of a murder mystery, (the idea transmuted into Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) but discovered he didn't want to get embroiled in the mechanics of plot. Originally entitled 15 Anhedonia (a Greek word, it describes the inability to feel joy), the movie Allen subsequently shot was a mosaic portrait of a 40 year old man harrassed by the
pressures of modern living. Only finding out the concept didn't hang together in the cutting room, Allen zeroed in on the love story aspect, reshot more footage and reshaped the material into something that is at once classically structured yet refreshingly freewheeling.
Working with cinematographer Gordon Willis for the first time, Annie Hall marked Allen's maturation as a filmmaker. Eschewing the flat look of most comedies, the movie has a distinct colour scheme golden for Alvy's childhood memories, dazzling bright light in California and muted greys and browns for New York that perfectly delineates each section of the picture. Moreover, Allen laces the love story with an endless parade of cinematic devices to up the humour ante: subtitles (deliciously conveying what Alvy and Annie are really thinking), split screens (contrasting Alvy and Annie's diverging perspectives to their shrinks), Alvy's conversations with passers-by who are totally aware of his predicaments, Annie, high on marijuana, moving out of her own body as Alvy makes love to her, even an animated section where Alvy confronts the Queen from Snow White, the root of his problems with women. For the first time, Allen wasn't just filming staged pratfalls; he was using the medium to its fullest extent to enhance his comic vision.
Towards the end of the movie, Alvy turns his relationship with Annie into a play, giving the affair a happy outcome that has been denied the pair in real life. By contrasting the fiction and the fact, it reminds us that reality (and love) can be unpredictable, uncontrollable and painful. But this is precisely why Woody Allen in general and Annie Hall in particular are important: they keep the whole sorry mess perfectly in perspective.
Arguably Woody's finest, now neurotic intellectuals have a film they can cherish.