From the get-go, it's clear that Annie Hall isn't your average narrative. The story starts with Alvy all by his lonesome, explaining that he's a guy with a goal: to figure out why he and Annie went kaput.
The narrative ends with another Alvy confessional, this time in voice-over, where he concludes that love is an emotional kick in the pants, but, ultimately, we need it. These tidy bookends make it crystal clear that this is Alvy's tale, and traditional storytelling isn't his bag.
Back to the Future
The non-linear narrative techniques don't end there, Shmoopers. Not by a long shot. Annie Hall's narrative is essentially one humongous flashback. After Alvy sets up the plot, we immediately jump back to two scenes from his childhood.
In the first, he's at the doctor's office with his mom because Little Alvy's decided that life is meaningless because the universe will one day eat itself. In the second, he's in elementary school, establishing his healthy curiosity about the opposite sex. These looks back at school-aged Alvy establish very early on that this story isn't going to walk a straight line.
Take the scene where we first meet Annie, for example. She rolls up to the movie theater, and it's clear that she's already knee-deep in her relationship with Alvy—and already tired of putting up with his neuroses, like not being able to watch a movie if they've missed the first two minutes. This means that our first meeting with Ms. Hall sets the stage for what's to come: Annie's going to drop Alvy like an anvil.
We're not saying Alvy's a wizard, but it's worth noting that the non-linear narrative means he can also insert himself into flashbacks, Ghost of Christmas Past-style.
For example, in the school scene we described earlier, present-day Alvy suddenly shows up to comment on the action and interact with his teacher and pint-sized former classmates. We also see Alvy and Annie inserted into a flashback of Annie's dating history, as well as in a subsequent look back at Alvy's childhood, where they're joined by Alvy's BFF Rob.
In the latter scenes, Alvy and pals go unseen by the people participating in the flashback, but the effect is the same: These interjections merge the distant past with the not-so-distant past and tie them together in a narrative knot.
Overall, scenes from Alvy and Annie's affair are presented like an Instagram-ready collage. Here's why:
First, we only get the most important parts of their relationship, like the lobsters and Duane and arguments about Annie's continuing education.
Second, this is how we actually remember our relationships. Our memories aren't linear, Shmoopers. When we look back on a romance—no matter if it ends happily or in an explosive fight in an Applebee's parking lot—we don't recall its highs and lows in order. We call them up in sketches, like a warped episode of Saturday Night Live.
Third, the film's non-linear style makes it easier to slip in all sorts of unusual cinematic devices, like Marshall McLuhan showing up to save the day, the animated Snow White sequence, and Alvy breaking the fourth wall at Easter dinner to address the audience directly. In a linear story, these elements could stick out like sore thumbs. In Annie Hall's non-linear story, they're just another part of the collage that Alvy creates as he tries to suss out what went wrong in his relationship.
Ultimately, it's Alvy's story, and he can fantasize if he wants to.