‘Anna’: FICCI Review

Courtesy of Emergence Films
Mommy knows worst.

This on-the-run debut feature is from the co-scripter of the Oscar-nominated ‘Embrace of the Serpent.’

‘Wherever you run, you can’t escape yourself’ would be a good tagline for most road movies, but it seems particularly apt for Anna, the feature debut from French-Colombian director/scripter Jacques Toulemonde. This urgently-told and played story about a woman on the run from her family with her boyfriend and young son delivers little that’s new, but its intensity and depth, exemplified in a plugged-in central performance from Juana Costa, enlarge it into a sometimes thrilling, sometimes moving reflection on motherhood and madness.

Viewer reactions to Anna will depend very much on their reactions to the character. Looking far more like what stereotype-bound viewer would expect from a ‘French’ movie than from a ‘Colombian’ movie, Anna deserves further festival exposure, with its Euro credentials possibly opening up that territory too.

This is one of those movies which is basically an extension of its central character. The breathless titular heroine (Acosta), whose hair and behavior both looks as though she's been plugged into the mains, has recently separated from the grave, bearded Philippe (Augustine Legrand). It’s pretty clear right from the first scene, when she rudely dismisses her son Nathan’s (Kolia Abiteboul) math teacher (Audrey Bastien), that Anna has issues, perhaps bipolar, which prevent her from being a ‘good’ mother to him -- at least if ‘good’ means ‘normal’, which this show-don’t tell script raises all sorts of questions about. Who cares if he can’t do math, as long as he’s happy?

Philippe, suspecting that her wild behavior is damaging the boy, attempts to prevent Anna from seeing him, but she ignores the prohibition. Instead -- in one of those tense, well-judged ‘Anna vs the world’ scenes this film specializes in -- she drags Nathan out of school one day and, along with her boyfriend Bruno (Bruno Clairefond), flies to Colombia to stay with her brother (Alexandre Toulemonde) and his wife (Claudia Vallejo), before, Anna dreams, going on to set up a beach restaurant there. When the surprisingly quiet ending arrives, following some emotional mayhem played out in a range of rural Colombian towns, it comes too soon after the plot’s too out-of-the-blue turning point.

Societal forces are of course ranged against the trio: it’s not enough just to throw unconditional love at your children, they must be educated normally. Anna has invested her entire being in Nathan’s happiness, but can’t be a good mother to him: that’s her tragedy. Such a role is clearly a gift, and Acosta seizes it with both hands, delivering a performance which is at times painful to watch, imbued as it is with the ever-present sense of fragility which is never far below Anna’s wild child surface.

Though she’s a force of nature (and sometimes a pain in the ass for characters and viewers alike) who’s able to briefly suck people into her emotional force field, there’s a desperation beneath Anna’s happiness which shows it can’t last for long, because she’s inhabiting a reality which only exists in her own head: for better or for worse, families have to exist in the world, not isolated from it. She would be intolerably egotistical were it not that she loves Nathan more than she loves herself.

As important to the film’s effect as Acosta herself is the dynamics of the Anna/Bruno/Nathan triangle, and there’s plenty going on here too. In what is so clearly Costa’s movie, there’s a danger of overlooking the quality of Clairefond’s performance: Bruno’s love for Anna seems to be equally unconditional and comprehending, and though at the start there’s something idiotic and irresponsible about him, by the end he has matured into her protector, something of a flawed, infinitely patient saint.

Stylistically, Anna is marked throughout by a nervy, hand-held docu style -- cine verité, 70s US indie -- which seems to function as an extension of Anna’s own frenetically in-flight character. Throughout some sequences, for example the urgent escape from her brother’s house, it ramps up into pure tension. But too much is too much, so Toulemonde drops in more reflective moments as counterpoint: the most memorable, when everyone gathers around some ponies which Anna has told Nathan her brother owns, has the family uniting in the pretence to keep the child happy. It suggests that a little of the heroine’s crazy, defiant refusal to see reality might after all be a good and necessary thing.

Production companies: Noodles Production, Janus Films
Cast: Juana Acosta, Kolia Abiteboul, Bruno Clairefond, Augustin Legrand, Alexandre Toulemonde, Audrey Bastien
Director: Jacques Toulemonde
Screenwriter: Jacques Toulemonde, Franco Lolli
Producers: Diana Ramos Medina, Julien Naveau
Director of photography: Paulo Perez
Production designers: Philippe Legler, Benoît Pfauwadel
Costume designer: Claire Daguerre
Editor: Mauricio Lleras
Casting director: Fanny de Donceel
Sales: Jour2fête

No rating, 96 minutes