In a student flat, in the heart of Bucharest, Ana and Toma are having a deep, flirtatious conversation about literature and philosophy. They sit side by side, locking eyes, laughing at one another. They giggle at the noises of loud sex that carry into the small flat from the people next door. It is the beginning of a romance. Ana spills her drink. Whilst Toma walks away to find something to clean it up with, Ana begins rummaging furiously through her bag, looking for something. She’s hyperventilating. She can’t find her tablets. Toma tries to reassure her, but Ana is gone. She is having a panic attack. Toma lies her down, and strokes her stomach – soothing at first, but then sexually. They embrace each other.
The first sequence of Cãlin Peter Netzer’s Ana, mon amour, sets the mood for Ana (Diana Cavallioti) and Toma’s (Mircea Postelnicu) tumultuous, long term relationship. Ana suffers from frequent panic attacks, and various mental health issues that are not completely disclosed. She has trouble leaving the house, an act which often results in her having a full on panic attack. Netzer’ explores their relationship from university, to adulthood, to parenthood – all the while examining the effects of mental illness on a relationship, and the cyclical nature of family trauma. Presented out of sequence, Ana, mon amour takes us through scenes of Ana and Toma’s life together, as Toma is recalling his experiences to a therapist after his and Ana’s divorce.
As in keeping with the traditions of Romanian cinema, Netzer keeps his camera close to his subjects and handheld, for most of the film. We are invited to investigate every inch of their faces, their bodies and their personal space. Much of the cinematography is handheld, giving a sense of constant movement and change – a huge theme of the film. We, as the camera, are never stable – much like Ana, and much like Ana and Toma’s relationship. The camera also feels intrusive in their lives at some points, especially when it captures acts that are traditionally private. Sex scenes between Ana and Toma are graphic and Netzer doesn’t hold back from showing everything. The same goes for Ana’s panic attacks – the camera moves closer into her face, capturing a private and shameful moment for her. It feels claustrophobic – we feel as Ana does.
We weave through their lives, space and time itself (and where we are in time is mostly dictated by the length of Toma’s hair). We learn that Ana is from a poorer rural background, Toma is from an affluent religious background. Their backgrounds, possibly more so than Ana’s mental health, are a source of tension between them – Toma’s parents have a very visceral hatred of Ana on their first meeting. This seems to subside by the time they the two of them have a child, because the next time we see Ana and Toma’s parents together, they are all together at what seems to be a traditional Romanian religious event.
This sort of ‘bait and switch’ occurs several times, most notably with the birth of their child. In one scene, Ana and Toma are convinced that they will have an abortion, but a few minutes later, we see Ana at 24 weeks pregnant having tests done on her unborn child.
Consequently, Ana, mon amour can come off as confusing. Netzer gives nothing away, we are expected to do a large amount of work to figure out where we are, how far we are into their relationship and how old the two of them are now. It’s frustrating, perhaps a reflection of how frustrated Toma feels with Ana. Perhaps it is also reflection of the Ana’s frustration at her health and being torn between her failing medication, Toma’s insistence on religion as a solution, and her own desire to see her psychotherapist. Religious symbolism is rife throughout the film, and is often presented as the antithesis to modern antidepressants/medication.
Though this technique sometimes works well for Netzer, and clearly has deeper connotations, it also means that a lot of smaller details are missed by the audience. It also means that the deeper we get into the film, the more disorientated we are with the constant time-hopping. It is difficult to understand, especially at the end, what has really happened and what has only happened inside Tomas’s head. Though as I’m sure Ana, mon amour is supposed to be ambiguous, walking away from it not knowing what really went on felt very dissatisfying.
Though Ana, mon amour is not a film about placing the blame, or deciding who was good or bad in the relationship, there is a sense of competing misery between the two main characters by the end. Toma, expressing this to his therapist, feels that he has been dealt an undeserved hand. He feels that he cared for Ana, that he ‘invested’ in her when she was sick, and now she is better, she doesn’t need him anymore. He also reveals that he believed that he loved Ana because she was dependent on him. In another scene, Ana tells him that he exacerbated her condition by controlling her all the time, by doing everything for her and by never encouraging her to be independent. Now that she is healthy and independent, he doesn’t like it.
Whilst both of them have their own issues to work through, and clearly communication is one of them, I felt very strongly for Ana’s character. Toma, who held the power throughout most of the film, came across as entitled and controlling. This seems to be at odds with Netzer’s intentions, however. It is Toma’s voice that dictates the way we see Ana, as it is through his therapy session that we are reliving their relationship. It feels like we are supposed to see Ana as selfish by the end – with her new blonde managerial haircut, her unwillingness to look after their child and the secrets she keeps from Toma.
Though Cavaliotti does a phenomenal job portraying Ana’s insecurity and anxiety, it is clear that Netzer wants Ana to be a ‘type’, rather than a well rounded character. Ana starts off as a problem which Toma needs to fix, but then becomes the shadow of Toma’s mother – a woman who wants to leave her husband. Equally, Ana’s mother fits this second ‘type’ too – whilst pregnant with Ana, she married another man who was not Ana’s father. Diana, Toma’s ex girlfriend (who we never see, but is integral to understanding Toma’s paranoia) cheated on him as well. For Netzer, all of the woman in Ana, mon amour are essentially the same character.
Nevertheless, I found Ana, mon amour to be a very interesting film. I identified with Ana and whether that is what Netzer intended or not, it doesn’t really matter.