When writing about films that you love, it is very easy to begin with a preamble where you eulogize about the said film in a way that only discusses your feelings for it, and doesn’t delve into and analyze the reasons why the film is so important. I will try to avoid that here and get straight to the point as to why Annie Hall is the greatest romantic comedy of all time. I feel this is the introduction the film requires – a little awkward, and wanting to examine everything that little bit deeper.
Annie Hall breaks so many supposed ‘rules’ that films have. If you narrow that down to the rules of the romantic comedy then it completely obliterates them. In terms of the romantic comedy, Annie Hall is one of those films with a relevance so seismic that the genre can be put into the categories of Before and After Annie Hall.
This is also true for Woody Allen, the writer, director, and lead actor. Before Annie Hall, he was known for being a comedian, and for his intelligent but largely sketch-based, slapstick comedy films. These included Take The Money And Run, Bananas, Sleeper, and Love and Death. Over the course of his career, these films had become more high-concept, and are known for a high hit rate of gags. They are probably less remembered for their plotting (which was very loose), or serious dissections of relationships. Annie Hall achieves the latter of these in abundance, and is one of the main reasons it is such a timeless classic.
I can’t think of many mainstream films that examined love and sex in such a way whilst also remaining constantly funny. There were off-kilter films which had plenty to say, a favorite of mine being Harold and Maude, but that film is hardly conventional. Saying that, there’s not much conventional about Annie Hall – a film ahead of its time and packed to the rafters with ideas.
It opens with a straight to camera monologue, which contains more laughs than a lot of films manage in their entirety. An ‘old joke’ which ends up being a philosophy on the lead character Alvy Singer’s life. Followed by another joke which ends up relating to how Alvy sees relationships. Alvy then admits to the pain caused by him and Annie breaking up before there is a segue into his childhood – a comical flashback to his younger days where he was brought up under a rollercoaster in Coney Island. The stand out scene from these flashbacks is at school, where Singer’s classmates reveal what they end up doing with their lives in the future. “I used to be a heroin addict, now I’m a methadone addict.”
The film moves from these innovative set pieces to the reality of the present day, with the realism of location shooting on the streets of New York, and the realism of arguments at the cinema. Yet even when presenting these realistic scenes, it breaks conventions. Annoyed beyond belief by the pretensions of a man behind them in the line, Alvy bursts out of the scene to air his annoyance straight to camera; the scene escalates its fourth wall break by having the man who annoyed him break out of the scene as well, although the line, and the scene in general, continues on behind them. Even nowadays this would be seen as odd in a romantic comedy feature film, but for the time this would have been seen as onscreen anarchy.
The story is likewise told in a nonlinear fashion. Fellini was a master of the nonlinear narrative, as seen in films such as La Strada, 8 1/2, and La Dolce Vita. But outside of European and art cinema, it wasn’t a style viewed all that often – especially around the romantic comedy. Maybe because of his love of Fellini, Allen embraced this storytelling device and used it in Annie Hall to highlight the recall of human memory. We’re taking a trip through Alvy’s thoughts regarding his relationship to Annie Hall. It’s a neurotic analysis, that keeps picking at the scab of the relationship to try to find new insights – a very truthful portrayal of how minds work in the aftermath of important relationships.
It’s 25 minutes into the film where we have already explored Alvy and Annie’s relationship both in its bad and good times, before we get to their first meeting. Or in romantic comedy parlance – their meet-cute. It isn’t all that cute: They play tennis together and then Annie offers Alvy a lift. But it doesn’t have to conform to the romantic comedy conventions of the meet-cute as we have already seen this couple together – we know they end up together, and we know this ends up not working out. The meeting in this instance is more to see how their love blossoms from the awkwardness, through a hair raising car journey, to falling for each other.
After parking (“That’s okay, we can walk to the curb from here”), Alvy compliments Annie on what she is wearing. Her look is truly original throughout the film. It is one of elements, alongside the great writing, which makes Annie a great female lead, a woman with her own agency.
Keaton’s Annie is a bundle of energy, more grounded than Alvy but with a tendency to be equally nervous. Stymied by an insecurity that she isn’t smart, this is proven not to be the case throughout the film. She’s a smart, independent, and distinctive character. Without her, would we have got some of the great female romantic comedy leads?
The couple’s awkwardness endears them to the audience, especially during a scene where they both try to impress each other whilst discussing art, which is subtitled with what they really mean by what they’re saying – unearthing their desires and insecurities. Watching them get to know each other is the staple of the romantic comedy, done here with intelligence, sensuality, and humor.
The scene where they first reveal their love for each other is followed by a jarring cut to an argument about Annie moving in with Alvy. This leads to some critics mentioning that the film isn’t romantic and therefore can’t be seen as a romantic comedy.
There are many moments which defy this – the memorable lobster scene combines slapstick laughs with the joy of a couple spending time together with plenty of laughter and love. The romance can be seen as the couple wander New York; we buy into the awkwardness between them and fall in love with the couple’s romance, a high point being their first kiss and a walk at sunset. We’re also drawn to the couple by witnessing their blazing arguments, the realism of them drawing us in to make comparisons to our own relationships and lives.
To have this insight – whilst utilising scenes of vox pops, resulting in talking to horses, animated sequences with the evil queen in Snow White, split screens, talking to characters that have left their body and more innovations – is what makes Annie Hall truly shine.
These innovations aren’t just there for the sake of it. This isn’t some wacky rom-com quirk-a-thon. The innovations are used as a way to highlight the way love can make you feel. It traverses the line between fantasy and reality in a way which highlights the heightened emotional rollercoaster that love forces us into. As well as taking us through one man’s memories, neuroses, asides and deep psychological scars, it also manages to be a universal film about how much of our life we are willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of love.
The pain and anguish that falling in love puts us through, and the strength of humanity to keep pursuing it even after all the heartache – when it comes down to it, isn’t that the most romantic thing of all?
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