Anna (1987), wonderfully directed by Yurek Bogayevicz and now all but forgotten, may be the ultimate Agnieszka Holland movie. She scripted it, and Bogayevicz’s sure hand puts all her regular concerns on full display.
First of all, it’s yet another story of hers, designed to torment its own heroine to the point of final breakdown (for more gruesome versions of this, see Holland’s Fever  and A Woman Alone ). Life’s adversities become, in Holland’s universe, something much more hurting and humiliating than they are elsewhere. Each blow maims and opens a new wound; life is a form of chastisement in Holland, and no wonder many of her characters choose to terminate it (the memorable image of a suicide as a part of everyday’s landscape is to be found in Provincial Actors , in which a man’s body flies past a window like a sack of potatoes).
Second, it’s a story of exploitation, with all the easy distinctions wonderfully blurred (see Copying Beethoven  and many others). Who exploits whom…? Anna (Sally Kirkland), a 40-something Czechoslovakian actress trying to make it in New York, takes under her wing a young and gorgeous compatriot, Krystyna (Paulina Porzikova). Freshly exposed to the free side of iron curtain, Krystyna gets a permission to “borrow Anna’s life” – one she will use only too literally at one point, following Ann Baxter’s lead and re-living the All About Eve (1950) scenario.
Sally Kirkland was justly nominated for an Oscar for her role, and then unjustly beaten by Cher (whom she even parodies in Anna, playfully stretching her skin in front of the mirror to an uncanny effect of resemblance). She’s a magnetic presence, with eyes constantly derisive of America and yet enamored by it. Anna accepts the New York talent market not for its fairness, but for its transparency. She fled Communism not only because it was violent and deadly, but also because it was so damn murky and shady in its day-to-day proceedings. When Anna meets her old acting professor, who pleads with her to come back to Czechoslovakia and “finally act again”, she’s immune to the temptation because she knows what it really spells: namely plunging into the ideological swamp again.
The play Anna’s understudying for is called Seven Women of Different Ages, an obvious homage on Holland’s part to the 1979 Krzysztof Kieślowski documentary short masterpiece of the same title and similar theme. The real-life references don’t end there, since the whole story was loosely based on the encounter between Elżbieta Czyżewska and Joanna Pacuła, and Holland’s Czech education remains an important element, too.
Kirkland’s presence – her perseverance and her constant, pulsating astonishment – are a stunning reminder of the great Anna Magnani in Visconti’s Bellissima (1951). Indeed, there’s a resemblance in both actresses’ features and eye make-up. Anna is as desperate to act as Magnani was to push her little girl into acting. The irony is that the only thing Anna can do, is to push Krystyna – not to promote herself. In this aspect, Anna brings to mind Rosalind Russell’s Rose from Gypsy (1962) – only this time not related to her protégé by blood, but by mere nationality. Still, everything’s comin’ up thorns for Anna, and Krystyna doesn’t really need that much of a push in the first place.
It’s a wonderful movie about both the greatness, and silent cruelty of American life – as well as about its ultimate loneliness. At first this loneliness seems like a blessing – especially in contrast with Communist violations of privacy Anna had to endure. In the end, though, Anna becomes a deeply moving account of love not returned back, especially when Kirkland shouts at the audience, desperately: “Why don’t you like me? Why do you hate me? Don’t you see I love you? What do you know about culture…? All you know is Mickey mouse and Donald Fuck!”.