Monday, 12 November 2012

Film Review: Amour (Haneke, 2012)




I gravitated, at this year’s London Film Festival, towards several films focusing upon elderly characters dealing with illness and decline. Due to various family circumstances this year, such films have a special resonance for me just now, more than works focusing upon my “own” generation tend to have. In its intelligence, its intensity, its subtlety and its deep compassion, Michael Haneke’s Amour simply blows the other films I saw out of the water, exposing the likes of Quartet and Song for Marion as the shallow exercises in uplift that they are. Amour had such a profound impact on me that I’ve delayed writing about it; I felt overwhelmed for quite a while after the screening, and I’m not sure that I’ve recovered from it yet, having found myself reduced to tears at the oddest moments in the past few weeks, when a scene, line or image from the movie resurfaced in my mind. I’m not sure, either, that there’s really any way to do this film justice, other than to simply say: “Don’t miss it.” Still, the following remarks represent an attempt to get beyond that clichéd - though entirely heartfelt - exhortation and to try to express a little more about what makes this film so rich and haunting, and so essential.

It could have been called A Man and a Woman - had not Claude Lelouch already used that title for his iconic 1960s romance. Haneke’s stark style is about as far as can be imagined from Lelouch’s chic ‘n’ glossy visual blitz. But the title fits because Amour, too, is an intimate portrait of a couple - specific in detail yet timeless in feeling - and one that stars one of A Man and a Woman’s actors, to boot. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (53 years on from her debut in an another film with amour on its mind) play Haneke’s latest “Georges and Anne” incarnation, here a middle-class, long-married pair of former music teachers dealing with Anne’s gradual decline following a series of strokes. Returning home in a wheelchair after her initial hospital stay, Anne gently requests that Georges doesn’t allow her to return to a care facility and instead looks after her at home. The film follows his attempts to fulfil that promise, with the help of kindly neighbours and not-always-kindly nurses. “We’ve always coped, your mother and I,” Georges reminds the couple’s daughter Eva (superb Isabelle Huppert), who arrives at the flat periodically, offering tears, concern and accusation but not much in the way of practical help. But Anne’s heart-rending deterioration - from wheelchair-bound to bed-ridden, from eloquence to incoherence - proves, for Georges, an ultimate test of love.

Amour is, by some margin, Haneke’s most interior movie to date, his most distilled, his most intimate, and - as critics have not been slow to point out - his most tender. Apart from a few early scenes - brief but crucial in establishing a sense of the day-to-day normality of the couple’s life that Anne’s illness will disrupt - the entire film plays out within the walls of Anne and Georges’s Paris apartment. However, despite Haneke’s background in the theatre, and the attention to spatial dynamics that it evidently fostered, there’s nothing remotely stagy about the director’s approach here. Rather, Amour establishes - and sustains - an intensity that is entirely cinematic. Less self-conscious about spectatorship than much of Haneke’s output - though at one moment Georges, describing Anne’s worsening condition, notes, poignantly, that “none of this should be shown” - Haneke’s approach is at once discreet and unflinching. His mastery of technique and peerless rhythmic sense keep the viewer in a state of absolute alertness throughout. And if his intention continues to be to combat the "mediatisation" of experience by encouraging us to perceive reality "better" then there’s no surer evidence of his success than the attentive, discerning and - yes - loving gaze that Amour inspires.

Our supreme anatomist of fraught interaction in the contemporary city thus becomes a master of huis clos, then. But the movement feels less like a retreat than a confrontation. For Amour must rank as one of the most fearless examinations of mortality the screen has ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a film that conveys with more rasping poignancy the experience of watching a loved one languish, and of being their care-taker. Or, of course, of being the person being taken care of. What we witness is the progressive deterioration of a woman into a wraith, deprived of speech and control over her body.

As Amour maps that trajectory with scrupulous sensitivity, scene after scene rings with resonant, telling detail, as well as a cumulative sense of the protagonists’ history together. For what the movie also offers is a rarity in itself: an un-idealised portrait of a loving marriage. As Michał Oleszczyk points out in a characteristically astute comparison: “In contrast to such works of comfy denial as Mike Leigh’s Another Year, [Haneke’s] aging couple… is present[ed] as both affectionate toward each other and as struggling to preserve the level of affection that we observe. Despite the near-constant civility of their on-screen exchanges, there are hints at past wounds that never get developed, but retain their prickling force nevertheless.” Amour’s scenes-from-a-marriage therefore feel so much more honest than Another Year’s, giving the viewer more space for interpretation, and avoiding the broad brush strokes to which Leigh’s movie so damagingly succumbed. Wearing the weight of their history of screen performances very lightly, Trintignant and Riva perform their duet with consummate skill and absolute emotional bravery. You believe in them completely as a couple, and if there have been finer performances than theirs on screen this year then I’ve yet to see them.

Amour presents a paradox, ending up both translucent and ineffably mysterious. Some moments - best left un-specified here - make you wince in pain. Others - more rare, admittedly - surprise you into laughter. “His British humour is only bearable in small doses,” Anne notes of Eva’s partner, played by William Shimmell, here establishing himself, after Certified Copy, as every auteur’s go-to English guy. (And I think, even if I didn’t already admire Haneke as much as I do, I’d be his fan forever just for writing that single line.) Throughout Haneke keeps faith with the texture of everyday life - albeit with some jarring excursions into Geoges’s mind at moments. And he and DP Darius Khondji make the apartment itself a felt presence too; we’re made aware, from the very first frame, of its walls and furnishings, its passages and doorways, and, most pointedly and poignantly, of the characters' presence or absence within that space.

The tone of many of the reviews of Amour has been “Ah ha! So Haneke has a heart after all!” (Catherine Wheatley, one of the director’s most insightful critics, praises him here for “piling on none of the scorn that he has heaped on previous protagonists of his films.”) Haneke's reputation as some audience-punishing sadist has never made for a perfect fit, in my view, but it’s certainly true that Amour constitutes the most significant rebuttal to that accusation. It’s also true that the film’s final scenes are endowed with a quiet, unstressed sense of transcendence and grace that is new for the director, and that leaves the viewer equal parts humbled and floored.

For all the praise that the film is getting, the very subject matter of Amour will be enough to put some viewers off and to doubtless get the movie dismissed as a downer in certain quarters. Haneke isn’t, of course, a director to sweeten the pill; there is, indeed, no “comfy denial” or, worse, any “ain’t-it-funny-when-old-people-talk-about-sex” banter (a current pet peeve for yours truly) that lesser filmmakers might feel obliged to include as a pacifier. But the steadiness of Haneke's gaze, the radiant intelligence of his insights and the sheer humanity of his vision, mean that Amour generates its own kind of joy. A film that goes so very deep is not only a rarity in our current culture; it’s a gift. And so: Don’t miss it.


9 comments:

  1. this certainly moved you didnt it?

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  2. Thank you so much for this beautiful review, Alex. I'm seeing Amour at the weekend and cannot wait!

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  3. Thanks very much for the comment, Marie. It's an amazing movie.

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  4. That was an inspired quote about the British, wasn't it ( : I loved the last 30 minutes of Amour, the metaphor of the bird in the flat was beautifully done, and of course the events which I won't reveal. I'm not quite loving the opening 90 minutes as much as you did, though, which I found lacking in story. Brilliant review here, I know the feeling when a film has a special resonance to our own lives.

    I think Mike Leigh's focus was more on the people surrounding Tom and Gerri, and how to cope with that, but you make valid arguments, that Another Year (2010) could have included a few more scenes, struggling to preserve affection, or hints at past wounds.

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  5. Thanks very much for the comment, Chris.

    It seems like I’m always taking pot-shots at ANOTHER YEAR, and of course the focus of the two movies is very different, as you rightly note. But I thought Michal’s observation was particularly astute here, since one of the main problems that I (and he) had with Leigh’s film was the fairly broad brush strokes in which it presented Tom and Gerri’s relationship. Haneke just seems to go about it so much more subtly. But presenting a long, loving relationship on screen without sentimentality is certainly a challenge for a film-maker…

    And yes: loved that line about British humour ...

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  6. Amour was released (at long last) here in Boston this weekend, so I finally saw it tonight. Your deeply perceptive review, Alex, covers all that's admirable about the film: the textures and shadows of the Paris apartment where it takes place (we certainly do become very familiar with that space), the movie's gradual descent into palpable pain for the characters and the audience, and of course the courage and intensity of the two central performances, which I imagine were all the more emotionally demanding given that the actors are surely facing similar fears at this stage of their lives.

    The pace of the film, however, often felt too intentionally glacial to me, and I'm not one who has trouble at all with slow-moving films or plays. I think that Haneke sometimes indulged just a little too much in the blunt "realism" or naturalism of the film, letting scenes linger for about 30 seconds too long on several occasions throughout the movie. It's a trick that needs to be used sparingly...it yanked me right out of the film four or five times, and it made me reach for my coat the moment the end credits started rolling, which I rarely ever do. Nevertheless, it's a beautiful and resonant movie overall, with some stunning cinematography despite its limited canvas.

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  7. P.S. The more enigmatic images in the film have continued to work on me since I watched it last night...for instance, the floating flowers that Georges cuts into the basin of the kitchen sink near the film's close. That scene echoes several earlier moments in profound and mysterious ways: the early scene in which Georges leaves the water running in the kitchen sink, the flooded hallway in his nightmare sequence, and the posthumous reappearance of Anne as she finishes washing the dishes before the two make their final disappearance together. I'm sure that I'll be making many more such connections the longer I think about the film.

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  8. Thanks for the comments, Jason. I’m so glad you were able to see AMOUR, finally. I certainly found it impossible to shake off – the images you mention really get under the skin. The pace and rhythm of the film worked fine for me, but I know other people who’ve had issues with it.

    There’s a nice little piece by Mark Cousins in this month’s SIGHT & SOUND in which he talks how he woke up the morning after seeing the movie with a kind of heightened awareness of the space of his own flat which “felt different” after experiencing the film. I suggested “A Man and A Woman” as an alternative title; he suggests: “The Apartment.”

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