The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

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JUNE 2023 Issue

“Anna” in Literature and Film

The etymological force of a name in literature and cinema: “Anna” in Tolstoy, Antonioni, Bergman, and Akerman

Michelangelo Antonioni’s <em>L'Avventura</em>, 1960. Courtesy the Criterion Collection.
Michelangelo Antonioni’s L'Avventura, 1960. Courtesy the Criterion Collection.

Every person’s name carries the weight of a meaning that many remain unaware of throughout their lives. Investigating in literature and cinema, a fascination for an alleged repeated coincidence grows: the similarity of characters under the name of Anna are outlined before a common destiny.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina conjures a spirit strong enough to try evading conventions stipulated throughout centuries of tradition. She puts her feelings before her obligations, even when it forces her to make the painful decision to choose her individual identity over her role as a mother—an unforgivable act in the nineteenth century, which is still unforgivable in the twenty-first century. The protagonist’s mistake in Anna Karenina—Tolstoy’s acclaimed and canonical work of literature—was the immediacy with which she unconditionally let herself be carried away by passion. Emotions were fueled by the excitement of adultery, of what was prohibited as immoral. It was a circumstantial desire that had no other function than to blow up the routine and build another beginning, knowing that this type of romance has a stipulated cyclical life that ends when consummated. When Anna can no longer ignore that the relationship she chose is unsustainable in the long term, she opts for an abrupt, tragic end, throwing herself onto the train tracks. The fantasy that was rescuing her from reality had also become reality, and as such there was nowhere to take refuge. In the 1935 film adaptation of the novel, Greta Garbo gives the character the complexity not of an individual, but of the human race and its existential crisis; that innate form of rebellion against nature that Dylan Thomas so well concentrated in a single verse: “do not go gentle into that good night.”

Aside from Garbo’s iconic take on the character (she also played the titular character in a 1927 silent adaptation), many have portrayed Anna Karenina in name and spirit, including Italian actress Lea Massari. A fascinating fact: Lea Massari was born Anna Maria, but decided to change her name (and perhaps her fate) at twenty-two, after her partner died. However, throughout her life she maintained their bond by playing various Annas. She played Anna Karenina in a 1974 miniseries, but immortalized a different Anna in L’Avventura (1960), as the figure who disrupts the plot of Antonioni's film.

In this masterpiece of Italian neorealism, the character of Anna is a high-born woman and daughter of a diplomat with whom she has marked differences. Anna maintains a romance with Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), a seductive cynic whom she does not trust, yet who has asked her to marry him. Their up and down relationship to that moment seems to be sustained by sex.

They take a cruise through Sicily in the company of other bourgeois, superficial, and immoral couples. Among them travels Anna’s best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti). One day Anna deliberately disappears after an argument with Sandro. Anna does not appear again; no one knows where she is. Perhaps she has committed suicide? Perhaps she has managed to escape without being seen? In any case, she has disassociated herself from a reality that terrified her. There is a rational, moral decision to abandon a way of life with which she disagrees, where people are replaceable and use each other for selfish purposes away from love. She has acted in alignment with a behavior consistent with all characters called “Anna”—an intense longing to escape a reality that consistently brings disappointment and profound pain. Antonioni’s film shows that, in fact, her intuition was right. When Anna’s fiancée and her best friend realize she has disappeared, they look for her, but after a few days they have not only forgotten about her, but wish ill of her. Claudia wants Anna dead, since Claudia has now become Sandro’s lover. When Sandro started seducing Claudia, she resisted his attempts by disturbingly exclaiming: “For me they are exactly as they were when we met three days ago, just three days ago … My God, is it possible to forget in such a short time, for things to change so quickly?” To which Sandro pragmatically replies: “It takes even less.”

The great Ingmar Bergman has several characters in his films named “Anna,” and they are all strong and unique women. In The Passion of Anna (1969), Liv Ullmann plays Anna, a woman who has lost her husband and son in a traffic accident while she was driving. Since then, she lives immersed in existential dissatisfaction and in a distorted world to avoid death, blame, and, ultimately, reality. Anna is temporarily living in the house of her married friends, Eva (Bibi Andersson) and Elis (Erland Josephson). She defines herself when she says to Elis: “Why don’t you do something you believe in? I try to live authentically.” Elis, on the other hand, describes Anna in relation to her deceased husband: “She loved him madly, in a way that I have only seen in literature. I imagine that he also loved her in his own way. I don’t know.” A love that does not reciprocate in the same measure is not the only betrayal-disappointment of Anna’s life; throughout the film we find out that Anna’s best friend, Eva, had been her ex-husband’s mistress.

Every confrontation Anna establishes with another person to get the truth ends in violence. Liv Ullman, representing herself in a strange foray into the film, states about the character of Anna (and all the Annas): “I sympathize with Anna’s need for honesty. I understand her desire for the world to be in a certain way. But it happens that her desire becomes dangerous for her, because when she realizes that she is in the wrong environment, that she will not receive what she demands, she takes refuge in lies and imagination. I think that is why it is so difficult to be honest: we expect others to share our same values.”

In Bergman’s The Silence (1963), Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) is a single mother whose strategy for dealing with her reality (in the middle of the war) is to let herself be carried away by the carnal pleasures that the present offers her. She does so in a lonely way, debauched, even abandoning her son, Johan (Jörgen Lindstrom), and her ill sister, Ester (Ingrid Thulin). Ester is a repressed mental being, radically opposed to Anna. This irreconcilable difference between Eros and Logos—Anna and Ester, respectively—is the cause of a rivalry that turns into hatred. “You are somehow afraid of me,” Anna tells her sister. The reception of the film was negative for giving space to such stark themes outside conventional norms. Anna’s character represents an otherness that challenges the status quo and expands the perspective of those around her. Once again, the character called Anna wants to live on her own terms, facing the fear of punishment, judgment, and rejection inflicted upon her.

In Theo Angelopoulos’s Eternity and a Day (1998), the character of Anna (portrayed by Isabelle Renauld) is already deceased, appearing as a figure in the mind of her husband, Alexander (Bruno Ganz). As such, she enhances the clarity of her husband’s memory. Alexander, a writer on the brink of death, recollects on her existence by addressing her as if she were still alive. Being suddenly aware of how much she loved him and that she died without him appreciating her, Anna is again the woman that dies without getting what she gives, which is what she desires, and ultimately, what she deserves.

Chantal Akerman’s <em>Les rendez-vous d’Anna</em>, 1978. Courtesy the Criterion Collection.
Chantal Akerman’s Les rendez-vous d’Anna, 1978. Courtesy the Criterion Collection.

Aurore Clément’s Anna in Chantal Akerman’s Les rendez-vous d’Anna (1978) fluctuates in different directions as she travels through Europe presenting her latest film. Interestingly, Anna’s mother in the film is portrayed by fellow Anna actress, Lea Massari.

Throughout her itinerary several lovers cross paths with her. But she interrupts all these romances because none of them convince her or make her want to commit. Through its protagonist, the film describes the evolution of women in contemporary society: Anna represents the transgression of conventionalisms, with the loneliness that involves opening a path that few people have followed (a loneliness represented in a hotel room, in a train carriage, in a conversation where your interlocutor never asks you anything). The people Anna meets immediately reveal their most intimate thoughts, always linked to internal despair, without ever asking Anna about herself. They use her as a way of venting, externalizing their unhappiness onto her. And, although they are not a good example of how to live, they do not deprive themselves of judging Anna’s behavior. Anna just listens, never gives her opinion; then, always, goes on her way. She is a verbally restrained, educated woman who lives in her own way trying not to hurt by nor react to external judgements. Once again, Anna discreetly tries to be free, dragging the pain of being misunderstood, but without falling into a sentimentality that would sink her. Her seemingly indolent, indifferent attitude is not a lack of sensitivity, but a survival tool. The film (as others previously mentioned) was not a success on its release, but gradually gained prestige as it has become a cult film.

Chantal Akerman committed suicide in 2015, at the age of 65; Anna seems to be her alter-ego. Does this character, this name, represent an exercise in freedom? Akerman always recognized in her work the influence of another Anna, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), who lived an intense and tragic life marked by the consequences of the Russian Revolution: her first husband was accused of conspiracy and executed, her second husband died in a concentration camp, her son was deported to Siberia, and she herself was deported on charges of treason. She was recognized as one of the best poets in history and was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature. One of her poems begins with the verse “You will hear thunder and remember me.” The poet Marina Tsvetaeva called her “Anna of all the Russias.“

The Annas swarm around me, like imaginary flies.

Anna is a simple name, honest by palindrome. In the apocryphal gospels, Ana was the mother of the Virgin Mary and is associated with a blessing from God, pure compassion. In 1887 the asteroid 265 was baptized “Anna”, which exemplifies the impulsiveness and speed of the characters who carry out the noble and tragic mission (kamikaze) of shaking the consciences of those who do not aspire to any evolution. In fiction, the sincerity and forcefulness of the Annas is a throwing weapon that poses a threat to the status quo of society and to anyone who does not want to deal with brutal honesty. That passion forces the Annas to engulf themselves in their own fire.

Anna contains the origin of the human tragedy: illusion followed by helplessness.


Ana Vidal

Ana Vidal is an award-winning Spanish writer, journalist, and diaspora poet. She published several books, writes at El Paí­s and hosts a podcast, “Hablemos de la muerte.”


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2023

All Issues