A pathetic specimen? Is that what we think when we think of Elliot? Mickey certainly believes so: he is awkward and socially nervous, like me, he says to Hannah when he visits his ex-wife and their adopted kids.
Should we pity Elliot? Feel sorry for someone who stumbles through life; too weak to control his emotions, and who lusts after a woman he knows is forbidden – there is, we are sure, the spice of taboo, of transgression, in his desire; another sign of his emotional poverty.
Are we meant to feel sorry for him? At most pitying his gaucheries and the pain his sexual dilemmas cause. Understanding his fall into irritation and anger; accepting that, innocent in the ways of a Don Juan, he cannot cope with the situation which he has created. A poor specimen indeed; more victim than moral crook. Is that what we are supposed to think?
I guess it is.
The film is a very funny comedy with a brilliant structure, that allows for quick shifts between characters, scenes and emotional states; most involving love in some form: happy love and sad love; love on the rise and love on the fall, and of course lovelessness… These short chapters, separated by voiceovers or screen titles, allow for a dense cluster of different storylines, which gives both a sense of space to the film – so much is going on there are times it feels like a large city – and makes it somewhat claustrophobic; as all the characters are related, many work in the arts, and all are suffering from similar emotional problems. (Like being trapped in a house party crammed with too many guests.) The structure also allows for some clever narrative play. Thus Mickey’s descent into suicidal depression, his hypochondria leading to an impossible search to recover life’s meaning, becomes a commentary, although exaggerated and articulated into the blackest of comedy, on the emotions of particularly Lee, as her affair with Elliot flounders – her feelings mostly implied by this stage; for the main focus of the relationship is its beginning, which concentrates on Elliot’s mental wavering as he works himself up to declare his love and to justify his adultery.
Elliot’s character fits into a wider pattern within the film. A pattern that is never stable, constantly shifting, with relationships forming, undergoing stress, and collapsing; to be resurrected in some different form – Hannah and Mickey morphs into Mickey and Holly; the Elliot, Lee, Hannah love triangle we have already seen. A few survive amongst the ruins – Hannah’s parents for example. The existence of such a pattern softens Elliot’s behaviour, blends him into what appears to be a natural order: humans are weak and marriage isn’t strong enough to contain the emotions that sometimes overwhelm them. At least that is the family mosaic he has married into. He, weak man that he is, has become like the rest of the family; just another dysfunctional personality who has found his life support in Hannah. For his wife is the source of strength and competence within the familial circle. They all need her, and sometimes desperately; which can cause resentment; particularly in Holly who is unlucky in love, and does not have her sister’s acting talent. And just like her sisters Elliot also chafes against this influence - he says Hannah is too self-contained and too perfect for him. So she doesn’t, he argues, need him; and his emotions have nowhere to go: although in fact they have found a home – in a hotel bedroom with Lee. He wants to be the strong one! He wants her to be dependent upon him. In reality he is too weak to play such a role. His words simply rhetoric to hide his desperation: he doesn’t want to lose either Hannah or Lee; although he seems on the verge of losing them both!
Certainly he is weak. But is he so lovable? Their affair falling apart Lee and Elliot talk in hurried conversations during the annual thanksgiving party. Lee tells Elliot it is over, for she now accepts that he will never leave his wife. Elliot is unable to cope with this rejection and later he gets angry at Hannah; who it transpires has noticed his moods and reticences but has not interpreted them correctly – she will never know of his affair with her sister. Rather than telling the truth, that these are signs of a troubled liaison, he gives the same explanation to Hannah as he gave to Lee: he has so much to give, but she is too strong to accept it. For a moment it seems the relationship may end…
Later in bed Elliot suddenly turns around and holds Hannah and tells her he loves her. This is the moment for judging Elliot. The first time I saw the film I experienced an overwhelming sense of repugnance at this gesture, and the soliloquy that follows it – where he realises his good fortune in being married to a wife who can look after him. Having seen the film many times since I am still uncomfortable with this scene. Elliot’s behaviour seems shallow and too calculated; a sign that his feelings for both women are essentially egoistical and superficial.
His action could be interpreted with more charity. It is a moment of love regained; an emotional release following the agony of indecision and guilt, which has seeped into his personality and made him irritable over the previous months. To believe this is to slide Elliot neatly back into place inside the family ensemble: he is just another imperfect human trying to keep afloat on unstable emotions; and which none of the other characters seem able to control for long. But what if he is cynical… After all, he doesn’t return to Hannah of his own accord: he has to be rejected by Lee to do so. Rather than a spontaneous act, a kind of instinct, his gesture seems to be consciously calculated; for with the affair over he now decides that he must maintain his marriage to keep himself comfortable. Thus his reaction may spring from a relief, but it could also be playacting - how much does he really think of Hannah?
There is something superficial about Elliot; there is a note of in-authenticity about him; and which contrasts starkly with the sisters and Mickey, Hannah’s former husband. Mickey’s revelation in the cinema, when in the deepest depression he is watching the Marx Brothers, that it doesn’t matter if the world has no meaning, that a world where such a film exists, just to make people laugh, is enough for us to survive, echoes Lee’s acceptance that the affair must end: its meaning, her desire for a permanent relationship with Elliot, has disappeared, and accepting the fact, that the affair has become desultory, she rejects it; and absolutely. In both of these characters there is a naturalness, or an openness, in their response to their respective crises, that Eliot lacks. In him it feels far more instrumentally conscious – he always plays safe, and is prepared only to take the minimum of risks; thus the broken promises to his lover. The sisters, by contrast, let themselves go to a much greater extent. Elliot holds himself back. And in this he is a normal guy, a typically weak villain; too full of fear and with a conscience that is too strong to allow him to be really bad – he upsets people by accident; in this case he hurts Lee by his inability to act. He is a successful accountant; but his feelings are poor; and so, thankfully, he can do only a small amount of damage: Lee will recover and find a more suitable partner; as she does in the end.
Being a weak man he fades into the background, for it is the ensemble we remember most of all; those quick jumps between characters and scenes, with Mickey’s voiceovers, the screen titles, and the intelligent use of music; often used to kick start the film into action after an emotional crisis, or a moment of sentimentality; such as Hannah’s parents reminiscing about their lost beauty. There are so many stories, and the film becomes a small city, a miniature Manhattan, and a very cultured one, at that. Art, opera, books and plays are the living reality of these characters’ lives, and which, characteristically, Elliot uses instrumentally: a Richard Yates novel and a Bach record as gifts to Lee; and the present of an E.E. Cummings collection; one of its poems used as a love letter - “Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.”
Elliot, if we are truthful, is boring. Instead it is the other characters who excite us, like Frederick, the artist, a great misanthrope who comes out with some wonderful lines after watching TV: “Those intellectuals discussing Auschwitz. What idiots! They are asking the wrong question. The puzzle is not why it happened but why doesn’t happen all the time…” “And wrestling! Can you imagine the mentality of someone who watches that! “
Elliot is lucky he lives in such a rich world, which elevates and hides him; a member of the chorus brought briefly to centre stage during a short love affair.