LFF 2017: Ana, mon amour Review

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.

LFF Round-up: Sieranevada

Cristi Puiu’s Romanian family comedy-come-drama, Sieranevada, is the directors latest epic. Clocking in at 173 mins (just shy of three hours) it could be described more as an experience, than a film. Don’t think too deeply about the title – Puiu himself states that it means nothing at all. A little foreshadowing perhaps, as that notion is pretty reflective of the film itself.  There is a real sense of having ‘lived’ Sieranevada rather than simply watched it. Whilst it’s incredibly long (in Puiu’s usual style), don’t let that put you off. Sieranevada is a hidden gem of 2016, and everyone should watch it.

After the death of his father, Lary pays a visit to his mother’s house (along with the rest of his family) to pay his respects and commemorate his late father. Whilst waiting for the priest to arrive, the family members each deal with their grief in different ways. Drama, tears, fights and reconciliations commence – the four main ingredients of any successful family gathering, especially one under such emotional duress. A story of a man trying to deal with his own grief, Sieranevada, allows us to engage with all of these sensations- all at once.

That said, Sieranevada is also one of the funniest films I have seen in recent years. What makes it so genuinely amusing is that it feels like Puiu barely intended for it to be amusing. The humour comes from the completely natural and inane actions of the families members, the circular conversations and the way the interactions we see are instantly relatable to anyone who’s ever been to a family gathering. From the intergenerational arguing about politics, to the constant closing of kitchen doors, to watching food being laid out that no-one is allowed to eat just yet, Sieranevada perfectly captures the montages of extended family life.

A constant stream of events occur which prevents the family from gathering around the table to eat – the very reason why they are all there in the first place. The lateness of the priest, the appearance of Lary’s cousin’s drunk friend, the arrival of Uncle Tony and the ensuing melodrama that follows, are all things to keep the family from commemorating their deceased father. Yet, in a way, all of these interruptions are commemorative of family life – nothing ever goes to plan, even at a wake. The food is moved around, taken out of ovens, put back in again, and constantly just out of reach of the characters – who are drinking more to compensate. A recipe for disaster.

It truly does feel like an experience, rather than watching a film. Puiu’s handheld camera sometimes follows characters around the space, stepping into rooms and then leaving them again. Just as often, the camera is left in the hallway, or just behind a door. We can barely see what is happening and are left staring at the back of people’s heads, yet the dialogue is so engaging that it hardly matters. It feels as if we are the camera; we walk the same steps as the characters, constantly moving and not always seeing the bigger picture. By not allowing us to ever see the entire space, Puiu succeeds in shrinking the flat even smaller than it is. The whole film feels claustrophobic (deliberately, of course).There are too many people in such a small space. Family members sit in separate rooms, gathering in groups too large for the space they are in. It feels chaotic and utterly mesmerising.

At certain points, it could be mistaken for a documentary. It is unclear if there was a script, or whether Puiu just put a real family in a flat and switched the camera on. Either way, the results are phenomenal. The cast are superb, and whilst it’s hard to pick a standout performance, Sandra (Judith State) and Lary (Mimi Branescu) are certainly ones to mention. Brother and sister, children of the deceased, the two of them rarely interact yet are both clearly struggling to deal with the death of their father – in very different ways. They seem to move in opposing circles (physically, around the flat and emotionally too), with Sandra alluding to her husband’s infidelities, whilst Lary practically admitting his to his own wife. Again, in both scenes – Puiu is confident with the camera, keeping the same shot for several minutes while we watch these excruciating conversations.

It’s the astonishing command of the camera, and the authenticity of the characters, which makes Sieranevada  a truly immersive experience. I haven’t watched a film that felt so real  in a very long time (if ever). The attention to the smallest details (each and every character is fully developed, regardless of how long they are onscreen for), really drives home the naturalist feel of the film. It’s rich in colour, design and in content – all elements supporting the naturalist style that makes the film so unique.

A film that can not only hold my attention for that amount of time, but can also make it feel like it was no time at all, is a film that deserves to be seen. Sieranevada does both.