Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Recent Watches: Amour (2012)

Has any filmmaker summed up the image of European directors as inscrutably, uncomfortably arty then Michael Haneke? (Gaspar Noe, probably.) I don’t like the guy. I’ve never forgiven him for “Funny Games,” an obnoxious film that criticizes the audience for enjoying it (not that they ever would) and takes a particularly brain-dead approach to on-screen violence. It seems the majority of his movies are acts in cinematic sadism, belittling and torturous to viewers in the name of confronting them with some heavy-handed philosophy. More didactic speeches then actual stories. Movies needn’t always be entertaining but they should at least be interesting. To confirm his air as a stuffy, pretentious, thickly European filmmaker, the guy has two Palme D’ors to his name.

Amour” is a little nicer then the director’s usual fair. The film, with its complete lack of a musical score, stark direction, and rigid cuts, doesn’t lack bluntness. However, instead of choking the audience on brutality or hardcore misery, he is instead confronting us with the unavoidable ravages of age, a far more relatable, if no less painful truth. “Amour’ revolves around a Parisian couple dealing with the wife’s slow degeneration from a stroke. George takes care of her as a devoted husband, his own flaws and past mistakes coming into even sharper focus. Eva is bitter about her ill health, cursing her dilapidated body, stubborn in recognizing the irreversible changes, deeply unsatisfied and depressed about her situation. She’s not ready to go, but then again who is? When so many Hollywood films only focus on love in the early, giddy, sunshine and flowers mode, leave it to a Frenchman to focus on resigned love. People at the end of their life, who don’t have much, have even less with each advancing day, but are devoted to one another, perhaps more out of force of habit then anything else.

Haneke only occasionally steps outside of the film’s stage-like direction. The whole story is set in the couple’s apartment and his “point at stuff and let it go” style of direction seems to go hand-in-hand with his overall coldness. Only during an oddly chilling nightmare sequence does the camera move in any recognizable style. While its easy to criticize the stiffness, it does lend a stark frankness to the material, that feels practically voyeuristic at times, peeping in own very normal people’s very normal lives. Haneke watches George and Eva go about their day-to-day lives, as they eat dinner or try and pass the time, sometimes hopeless at the ever advancing end, sometimes grateful for the beauty life hands out from time to time. I suspect, very much, that this is a deeply accurate take on how your grandparents, parents, or elderly neighbors live each day.

With a director this scientific in his approach, it’s up to the actors to lend the story the emotional resonance it desperately needs. That’s where “Amour” succeeds. Jean-Louis Trintignant plays George as a totally devoted man. At first, he almost takes the everyday work in stride, just seeing it as an extension of his husbandly duties. However, as Eva gets sicker, the strain starts to show. His eyes convey a quiet, ragged desperation. However, Trintignant keeps a tight lid on his emotions. Never cries, never yells, never overacts, instead letting subtle, quiet emotions speak for him. (This almost definitely explains why the Academy passed him over.) He carries himself with constant dignity. Of course he does because his wife has so little left. Emmanuelle Riva at first makes Riva as lively a woman as possible. The storm of feelings passing through her as displayed so clearly on her face. Haneke is smart enough to give both actors several spot-light moments. Trintignant describes the funeral of a friend, the awkward moments that prevent serenity, how it feels when nothing quite goes right. Later, Riva quietly looks through a photo album. “It’s beautiful,” she says, “Life.” The almost stifling understated quality to the entire film prevents it from ever appearing overdone. These emotional moments are honest and fully earned.

Disappointedly, Haneke can’t keep his sadistic fangs out of the material. In the second half of the film, Eva suffers another stroke and her health deteriorates steeply. At this point, the film’s two-hour and seven minute runtime begins to feel punishing. We watch, feeling the humiliation, as a nurse changes her dapper, bathes her while she cries, how her language degrades into unintelliable fragments. George begins to crack under the demands. This, I suppose, is logical for both the film and real life. Yet Haneke has no emotional investment in these characters. His viewpoint is totally detached and emotionless. Once again, he’s rubbing the audience’s nose in misery in service of some master thesis. This is the most obvious at what I guess functions as the story’s climax, with a character making a very drastic decision. It doesn’t feel organic and nothing before it suggests such an outcome.

“Amour” comes close to making up for its torturous second half with a pitch-perfect ending. The film certainly succeeds in making me feel something and the two lead performances are extremely good. It’s just a shame that the director has to be such an asshole. The story progresses as sad but honestly so. When those emotions become manipulative and purposely hurtful is when the film starts to falter. (And here’s a good example of a film that never would have earned a Best Picture nomination before the category opened up to nine/ten choices.) [6/10]

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