Annie Hall is so often listed as one of the great romantic comedies that one is likely to forget—or never to realize—that it’s also a break-up movie. It’s a romance told in flashback, narrated by Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, who lets us know from the very first shot of the film that he and Diane Keaton’s Annie are no longer together. With Alvy as our guide we spend the next ninety minutes poring over the memories of their ill-fated relationship, until we’re eventually deposited at the Upper West Side café where they have a bittersweet last meeting. I’ve seen Annie Hall dozens of times, very often around Valentine’s Day (when it tends to screen at repertory houses whose programmers also seem to feel that it’s a romantic film); watching it this week in the aftermath of a break-up, its melancholic tone hit me in a way that it never has before.
Melancholy has always been a part of Allen’s shtick; since the beginning of his career his comic persona has traded on the depressive aspects of his personality, which are associated both with his Jewish identity and his interest in existential philosophy. “The way I see it, life is divided up between the horrible and the miserable,” Alvy tells Annie at a bookstore. (She nods politely.) The novelty of Annie Hall may have to do with Allen’s mapping this melancholic air onto the genre of the romantic comedy. Critics have noted that Annie Hall shows the influence of all of Allen’s comedic forebears—Chaplin and Groucho, Bob Hope and Mort Sahl; it just as much invokes the screwball romances of the 1930s and ’40s, with Keaton doing a variation on the breezily scatterbrained heroines that used to be played by Carole Lombard. (Her long-limbed body and androgynous style suggest a latter-day Katharine Hepburn.) Allen has expressed his admiration for these films in interviews, singling out The Shop Around the Corner as a favorite, and he would later go on to remake The Thin Man as Manhattan Murder Mystery, the seeds of which were originally contained within Annie Hall. Where those traditional screwball films, fueled by a Depression-era optimism, invest a great deal of faith in the power of opposites to attract and couples to commit to each other in spite of their differences, Annie Hall insists that relationships die, people change, love hurts.
What makes the film so powerfully affecting is its ability to evoke the experience of sifting through the wreckage of a relationship, as well as the experience of being in a relationship itself. It renders a love affair as a series of moments stitched together over time, in which the lovers are so completely submerged they can’t see themselves properly. Only after it’s over do they come up for air, look back on everything and think: what was that? What did it mean? Why did it happen that way? The film ultimately affirms love and relationships, but it does so with an absurd sense of resignation worthy of Beckett. It’s a Valentine’s Day movie not for the faint of heart.