Like most failed relationships, “Ana, Mon Amour” opens with a sustained burst of promise and potential before settling into a repetitive, tedious pattern, and stays in that register way too long. By no means a failed film, this two-hander about toxic-codependency from Romanian director Călin Peter Netzer is best in small-moments and insightful asides, but does a disservice to the relationship at its heart by honing in on one single thought and hammering it home again and again and again.
The film quite literally starts mid-sentence. As we pick up, lit-undergrads Ana (Diana Cavallioti) and Toma (Mircea Postelnicu) are in heated philosophical debate. Netzer’s shaky hand-held camera holds the two in quick, close shots as the young students tear through Nietzsche, though it’s clear from the look in their eyes that both would rather be tearing off each other’s clothes. Soon they’re doing just that, but not before the unsteady Ana collapses onto Toma’s bed in a full on panic attack. As the film will spend the next two hours reiterating, the steady reassurance Toma then offers is not just a prelude to their surprisingly explicit intercourse – it’s foreplay.
Here’s “Ana, Mon Amour” in a nutshell: Ana and Toma are messed up people with complimentary complexes. She has debilitating anxiety, verging on full-on mental illness; he has a pathological need to subdue and control. Together they make a combustible pair, and they pretty much remain that way for the ten years of breakdowns, rescues and life-events they share as couple.
Netzer presents the tumultuous decade in an intriguingly non-linear manner, shuffling between the beginning, middle and end of their coupledom with carefree abandon, as if he had thrown a bunch of puzzle pieces in the air and let them fall where may. Sadly for him but helpful for us, Toma starts going bald at a tender young age, and we are often only able to orient ourselves in the narrative by counting the amount of hair on his head.
Because the film is rooted in Toma’s perspective, we are meant to understand that this shuffled approach represents memory, specifically the way that, from the vantage of the present, everything already past happened all at once. But Netzer leverages this approach to make larger points about Romanian society.
Take this three-scene sequence: First, Toma gets into a fight with his father and insults the older man by calling him a Russian informer. Then, meeting with his mother at a later date, she drops details about his personal life that he never revealed (somebody must have informed her), before castigating him for smoking. Finally we find him at confession, where the priest also tells him to stop with the cigarettes. In that simple one-two-three, Netzer lands a clean hit on Romanian society, where there are no lines between the personal, the political and the moral.
Some of these “rhymes” are darkly funny. At one point the younger, hirsute Toma gets a frantic call from his mother. “Don’t worry,” he tells a concerned Ana, “she just had a nightmare.” Cut to an older, balder man with newborn baby in his arms. Though clearly not the exact nightmare his mother had, in the larger scheme, it clearly is.
This temporal dilettantism can work against the film as well. Actors Postelnicu and Cavallioti bare body and soul to flesh out the full extent of Ana’s real mental illness (at least one harrowing, scatological sequence sets a high-water mark in the vanity-free performance canon) and the film spends at least two-thirds of its length examining the many ways mental illness can affect a couple. Then, we just cut to her several years down the line and she’s… cured.
Of course, the film just uses mental illness as a feint, an art-film McGuffin to ask the broader question, “What happens when a man who needs to control no longer has a woman ready to play along?” but by dint of almost literally rubbing your nose in the shit that real people deal with on a daily basis, and then answering it away with the vaguest “well, she got a job so she got better” response is opportunistic and exploitative at worst, and in exceedingly poor taste at best.
It also does a disservice to actress Cavallioti, who gamely accepts whatever difficult notes the film asks her to play, but in the process of doing so ends up playing three different people who never connect to each other, all under the same character’s name. Towards the end, Ana tells Toma, “you don’t know the pain I went through, and I’m frustrated that I can’t make you understand.” Her and me both.
“Ana, Mon Amour” premiered at the 2017 Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.