Annie Hall revisited

I rewatched “Annie Hall” periodically. I think it’s one of those protean works that holds different meaning for you, depending on where you are in life. I first saw it when I was very young, and I remember thinking of it as a powerfully romantic experience.

Last night I saw it yet again, for the first time in a number of years. What struck me this time was how different it seemed. Yes, the lines are brilliant and witty, the timing of the humor spot-on, the cultural digs pitch-perfect and devastatingly on target, the romantic scenes by the river breathtakingly lovely to the point of being iconic.

Yet at its core, something seemed fundamentally different — the story of Annie Hall and Alvy Singer wasn’t really a romance. Yes, it had all the form of a romance, but this time I realized that both of the main characters are completely self-absorbed. Both have a romantic vision of the other, but each is trapped in their own narcissistic version of reality. This may not be exactly true of the character of Annie, since we are allowed to see her only through Alvy’s eyes. But it is certainly true of him.

I had thought, upon previous viewings, that the film was a rumination on how true love can fail to work out. But now I see it as a referendum on infatuation that mistakes itself for love — the kind of relationship in which one or more partners is unwilling to do the work of climbing out of their skin long enough to truly see the other.


7 thoughts on “Annie Hall revisited”

  1. Are there any Woody Allen movies where the character that Woody plays is *not* completely self-absorbed and trapped in his own narcissistic version of reality? I realized while watching the PBS documentary that there are many more Woody Allen movies than I had even heard of, so maybe the answer is “yes”. Many of his standard characters seem to have this quality, though.

  2. Yes, I agree that the narcissistic protagonist has become a staple of his films. The reason this particular viewing came as a shock to me is that I had long held “Annie Hall” to be the definitive statement by an earlier, less curdled Woody Allen. Rather than the extreme narcissism of, say, “Deconstructing Harry”, I had remembered A.H. as the apotheosis of a kind of golden age in his film career when he still believed in the possibility of love and real connection.

  3. I don’t know if I agree with the way you’ve described the Alvy Singer character ….I think the two characters in Annie Hall definitely love each other, but then grow apart from each other, more Annie than Alvy…The Alvy character has always been the protean “paradoxical” character to me, which Allen discusses in many interviews. He adores her, as she is when he meets her, but he’s uncomfortable with the way she changes and grows into a more self-actualized being. She grows tired of the way Alvy does NOT change. He is who he is, “An island unto himself” as Annie calls him. In the play that he writes at the end, she stays with him, but not in the text of the film. She leaves, they meet a few years later, have lunch, and he’s happy about the fact that he loved her once, that he was happy that she was in his life because in essence the relationship with her did change him, did bring him out of his “island…”, even if it was only for a moment in time….:-)

  4. Watching it this time, it seemed to me that what Alvy adores about Annie is the fact that she is unfinished, still a kind of grown-up child, and therefore a willing vessel for him to fill with his ideas, largely through books and movies. He makes no attempt to find out who she is before he gives her books to read or drags her to his choice of movie — he just wants her to absorb his view of the world.

    Over the course of the story, as you point out, she does begin to embrace her grown-up self, and to realize her own potential. This all comes from herself, not from him, as far as I can tell. It is very telling that he feels threatened by this growth, rather than embracing it.

    Which is why I get the sense that Woody Allen intended this film as a portrait of a narcissist who doesn’t understand that love means embracing the potential of another person. In Alvy Singer he created, as you say, a paradoxical character, who adores the idea of being in love, but is uncomfortable with the reality that his partner is a separate individual, with her own destiny to fulfill.

  5. Having just rewatched the movie, I agree with what you’re saying, Ken, about Alvy’s character. Here’s how I see Annie. She is a woman who looks for men who are smarter and more accomplished than she is, because she feels that she isn’t good enough on her own. If we take the story at face value, she is the one who pursued Alvy initially, and she rekindles the romance after they break up (the spider in the bathroom scene). (I suppose this might just be Alvy’s version of the story). Having such men interested in her temporarily increases her sense of self worth. Paradoxically, after getting to know them she realizes that they are not the ultimate authorities that she thought and she becomes disillusioned with them. Of course Alvy, who liked the adoration that he felt from Annie, becomes jealous when he sees other men getting that kind of attention from her, and doesn’t like it when she starts to disagree with him. He tries to get her back on his terms because he misses those feelings that he got from her. The growth that we see during her relationship with Alvy probably was at least in part thanks to him (seeing the therapist, going to school, perhaps gaining confidence as a singer). She does grow over the course of the story, but it isn’t clear whether she becomes completely independent. They mention her interest in one of her professors while she is with Alvy. After Alvy she moves on to Tony, who we don’t know very well, but who seems like yet another authority figure in Annie’s life who takes her under his wing but probably is too self-absorbed to see her for who she is really is.

    So was this not a love story? Underneath all the neurotic and co-dependent overtones, there seemed to be genuine respect, joy and caring in Alvy and Annie’s relationship. Perhaps it was just one of those immature loves that has a limited lifetime. You said in a blog post a while back: “You and I may walk along together for a while, but ultimately we are in different orbits.” It takes a lot of work to stay in the same orbit for an extended period when forces are pulling you elsewhere, and sometimes staying is not the best thing.

  6. Sharon, that is a wonderfully insightful analysis! And it shows the lesson in the story for all relationships — which might be why the film is so beloved by so many. 🙂 🙂

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