The Importance of Freud in Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL (1977)


One of the biggest Freud fans, Woody Allen decided to create a movie concentrating on two characters: Comedian Alvy Singer and a nightclub singer Annie Hall. Exploring his childhood traumas and his early adult years, Singer tells us a story of how he met Annie Hall, fell in love, and struggled with his inner obstacles with romance.

Woody Allen introduces the movie with his short monologue to the audience in front of a bare background, where he himself speaks of Freud: “…but I think it appears originally in Freud’s wit and its relation to the unconscious. And it goes like this-I’m paraphrasing: Uh … ‘I would never wanna belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.’ That’s the key joke of my adult life in terms of my relationships with women.” Woody Allen was not a silly man, he had a reason for every word used in his script, by bringing up Freud in the first couple of seconds of the movie he sets the lane for the audience. The audience now knows which perspective to look from – Freud’s psychoanalysis. Using Freud’s name with a joke – he introduces the relief theory. By making such a crude statement saying he has problems with women he makes the audience laugh. Woody Allen anticipated for the audience to have had problems with the opposite gender, and by making such a joke he helps them release their inner tension related to this subject, stimulating them for the rest of the movie.

He then introduces his characters. Singer and Hall, two opposite personalities who fall in love. Singer, since his childhood existential crisis can’t move on from the subject of death, speaking of it in different aspects – whether in literature or one-on-one discussions, it’s a recurring theme for this character. On the other hand, Annie Hall feels utmostly uncomfortable every time death is mentioned. We first see this when the lobster scene is introduced. Woody is scared, releasing his built-up tension by laughing at the situation, while Annie can’t seem to put a live lobster into the pot, because “killing a live thing” for her is impossible. She too is laughing at the situation, but as we later see in the movie, she laughs every time death is brought up. Telling the tragic death story of her narcoleptic uncle, she won’t stop laughing – even though she knows herself the story is not actually funny. She feels so uncomfortable about the topic that she can’t help but laugh – release her inner built up tension due to discomfort. This is then related to the audience. People generally have a problem with accepting death, so including such polar opposite perspectives on the subject, Woody Allen gives the audience an easier outlook. He turns this tense theme into a joke, thus receives laughter from the audience. How is this related to Freudian comic relief? Well, since death scares us all, it thus creates a lot of tension within us. Thus, by including it in a comedy – we release all of that built up tension through laughter.

Later in the movie Singer brings up the subject of death yet again, telling Hall “You know how I’d like to die?” Annie’s reaction is, again, not appropriate – she laughs as she asks how. It can be argued that she just finds the question silly, but judging from the rest of the movie, and the intensity of her character – we can see that she just laughs due to discomfort. To back up this theory, we can look at how Annie and Alvy met. Annie talking to Alvy after their tennis match, giggling non-stop, with her super awkward body language and language, we can see that she just laughs whenever she’s uncomfortable. Besides from her nervousness from talking to a man she obviously feels attracted to, she laughs every time she lies. “Do you have a car?”, “I’m going downtown”… Again, Woody allen supports Freud’s theory through his characters in very different ways. How would the audience relate? Of course all of us have had moment where we talk to our “crush” and just become awkward and silly. By including this in the movie, the audience sees a very similar story we have all been through or witnessed. Woody Allen helps the audience:

Familiarize with the characters and feel relief thinking “that was me when…”

Find a mutual object to laugh at among different people in the audience – thus relating with each other and bonding through the “bully syndrome”. Bully syndrome would be when people start to make fun of some characters due to their weaknesses (in this case Annie’s awkwardness) and thus bonding over it.

Thus the audience receives comic relief through all of the reasons listed above. Since we look for relief of built up tension through various ways, by familiarizing and bonding with peers we laugh off the inner tension related to the scene or the character. By thinking “oh that was me when..” and then laughing it off, the audience receives closure from the time they were in a similar situation – comic relief can do more than just relief your psych for a day or two. It can help you move on from the past “scarring” experiences.

The release theory doesn’t just concentrate on the positive aspects of comedy and laughter, sometimes we laugh in extremely inappropriate situations when we have no other ways of releasing the tension – funerals, public speaking, etc. That’s why the term inner psych is mentioned. Whatever helps us release our built up tension in our psych, to help us “start over” the psych cycle, is considered to fall under the release theory. By including such aspects of life in a movie, the audience finds it easier to laugh it off. We have more than enough built up tension within, by creating a joke out of our embarrassments, we restart our psych cycle faster than by watching a piano fall on a talking mouse (Mickey Mouse). Woody Allen does a perfect job portraying Freud’s theories in his movie, whether it’s Freudian slips, release theory, or childhood sexual development (ID, Superego, Ego) – he supports them with his very complex characters.

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