I’ve spent an interesting time trying to decipher Anna M., a French film generally touted as in the mould of The Page Turner or Haneke films such as Hidden or The Piano Teacher. In fact it is something rather different and much more like À la folie . . . pas du tout, a film I used with students very successfully a few years ago. And the connection is quite spooky since the young woman playing Anna, a stunning performance by Isabelle Carré, was also one of the main players in À la folie. In the earlier film, Carré played the wife of a doctor who becomes the focus for an erotic obsession by a young artist played by Audrey Tatou. In Anna M., she is the young woman with erotomania — an obsessive love for the doctor who treats her after a failed suicide attempt. The two films share several narrative elements and even one identical shot, but overall they are quite different with À la folie working as a ‘twist’ narrative and being driven by Audrey Tatou’s distinctive screen persona. Anna M. is, in one sense, more conventional, but also more puzzling since its ‘significant objects’ and the clues they hold to Anna’s life are harder to pin down.
Anna M. is, I think, an auteur movie in the French sense. At least it was hailed at Berlin this year and its director Michel Spinosa has been interviewed as an auteur on several sites. I noted however, that in France it opened on 91 screens, expanding to 99 before dropping out of the French Top 20. (In the UK it opened on two prints from Metrodome.) The newspaper reviewers have been OK-ish about the film, but it has suffered the fate of many similar films. For the cinephiles, it is tainted by a too strong a reliance on genre and for the popular critics it is too slow or confusing in telling its story. I’m so tired of this, why not just deal with it on its own terms?
As with À la folie, I was drawn to comparisons with Polanski rather than the obvious Hollywood films (Fatal Attraction, Play Misty For Me etc.). Repulsion and The Tenant are two possible Polanski models. I quite like the ‘collapse into melodrama’ as one reviewer puts it and I enjoyed the frisson of horror in scenes with children and also Anna’s relationship with her mother (with its oblique nod towards Carrie). As Sight & Sounds reviewer suggests, there are hints that mother too may have history of mental illness.
Bizarrely, most of the UK critics make little mention of the central cultural references in the narrative. Eventually I tracked down the painting which seems to link Anna’s obsession to the doctor – The Childhood of the Virgin by the 17th century Spanish painter, Francisco de Zurbarán . I don’t want to give the ending away, except to say that it is quite baffling unless you accept the obvious explanation (and, yes, the painting features). (The ending is filmed in the French Alps as one of the public funding agencies involved is the Centre Européen Cinématographique Rhône-Alpes.)
Anna works in the National Library restoring antique books (and stealing several, it would seem). She also connects the doctor with The Song of Songs. As an ignoramus in terms of Biblical and classical education I didn’t get much from these references as I watched the film, having to do my homework when I got home. Rather different cultural references are the songs from CocoRosie and Au Revoir Simone. I was reminded (somehow!) of watching Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, which conveys a sense of the ethereal world view of (suicidal) teenage girls. But perhaps this is not surprising since all the music for The Virgin Suicides came from the French duo, who recently toured with . . . CocoRosie. Isn’t the internet wonderful?
Both The Virgin Suicides and À la folie were directed by women. I must find out what women filmmakers and theorists have made of Anna M. – a film which takes an almost forensic interest in Isabelle Carré’s body, primarily as a means of staying as close as possible to Anna’s perspective on the world. Nevertheless, it raises interesting questions about the male and female ‘gaze’.
The other interesting feature of Anna M. is its CinemaScope ratio and amazing mise en scène. Again, I have to give credit to Catherine Wheatley in Sight & Sound for pointing out that the warm palette complements the choice of locations in suggesting late 19th century Vienna rather than 21st century Paris and that this fits with the Freudian allusions to the ‘case of’ Anna M.
Can I show this to students? I’m not sure.