Friday, January 25, 2013

138. Austrian director Michael Haneke’s French film “Amour” (Love) (2012): Well-crafted, comprehensive cinema that will touch both the heart and the mind of the viewer equally














Amour is the best film that this critic viewed in 2012. There are two ways to appreciate this film. One way is to appreciate its subject and the second is to appreciate the artistic manner the contents of the movie are presented to the viewer.  The following review attempts to appreciate both aspects separately.

The subject of the film would win the hearts of the larger segment of its viewers.  Amour is French for “love.”  However, the subject of the film deals also with inevitable appointment with death for all of us. Both subjects intertwine in this movie.  Love depicted in the film is the rare kind of love not often elaborated on screen; it is the love between couples in the evening of their lives. The only types of viewers who might not like the subject are those who themselves are already beginning to experience situations similar to those depicted in the film. Amour has already won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival, the top four awards at the European Film Awards (Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Actress), the two BAFTA awards (Best Actress and Best Film not in the English Language), and the Best Foreign Film Awards at the Oscars and Golden Globes. Predictably, it has also swept the top French Cesars (the French national film awards)--best film, best director, best actor, best actress, and best screenplay.

Amour, the film, brings many modern day social issues to the fore. The film’s point of view is that of the elderly person, not of a young man or a young woman. The filmmakers have indirectly achieved two remarkable feats.  One, the filmmakers are able to reinforce the importance for young people to understand, and thereby empathize with, the agony of elderly sick persons in hospitals and old age homes cut away from their immediate family and familiar surroundings. Two, the film underscores the importance of younger people to apportion quality time with the elders in the family when they most need their presence. It is also a film on the dignity of the old and the dying. It also presents a subtle plea for euthanasia for such unfortunate elders as an alternative to increasing levels of pain and degradation; when their offspring are not near to alleviate their suffering.


Anne and Georges

Most viewers will find Amour to be a film that is both endearing and thought-provoking. You love and empathize with the main characters in the film, Georges and Anne. Yet it is also a film about the darkest reality all of us have to accept eventually. It is about the evening of our lives when death seems strangely more attractive than life.

The film does not state whether the duo is married or not, what is clear is the communication and understanding between the two, spoken and unspoken, are alive and well. The film is primarily about the duo and when peripheral characters come on screen they are there to substantiate the love between the elderly spouses.  A key character in the film is their only offspring, a daughter, who herself has a family and associated problems, that leave her with little time to attend to her parents’ needs.  She prefers that her parents move to an old age home and be looked after by paid staff as most youngsters in the western world would like. The introduction of this character reveals that the primary couple, Georges and Anne, the parents of this woman, Eva, have been together for at least 30-odd years, if not more. This movies’ tale is not of a fleeting love of spouses who have been together for a short while but of a couple who have loved each other for a long, long while.  The film presents the outcome of a long relationship with music as their common interest and a factor closely related to their individual careers.  Two other individuals shown briefly in the movie are the concierge and his wife who bring the elderly couple their provisions including the heavy bottles of Evian (drinking water). These individuals are also old but less advanced in age compared to the main duo and the film records the honest appreciation of the younger couple for the elder couple.  The film also briefly brings into focus two youngsters interacting with the elderly duo. One is a pianist student of Anne who drops by to thank the couple for attending his concert and promises to bring a CD of his concert. The second is a nurse who is rough with Anne while taking care of her, and is subsequently fired by Georges.  The actions of the youngsters are of secondary importance, the reactions of the elderly couple to each youngster are of primary importance. The two youngsters provide differing responses of the younger generation to the elders. And finally, there is the pigeon, which enters the apartment and is trapped by Georges and eventually set free. Each interloper’s entry into the elder’s life and time provides additional psychological details of the elders’ mind. All this makes Amour a great tale to recall after one has watched the film in a movie hall or on a television screen. The viewer begins to empathize with the elderly duo’s condition, not with the peripheral characters.

Such contrasts are what Michael Haneke is so adept at presenting in his cinema. He loves to make the viewer enjoy viewing uncomfortable truths that he presents in his films. Haneke’s cinema often excels in adding a documentary-like touch that he provides to his fictional characters.

Now that brings us to the second way to appreciate Amour—the way the tale is presented.

The strength of Amour is not merely the subject of love but the cumulative creative strength of the team both in front of the camera and behind the camera that will enrapture audiences of all ages and mindsets and satiate the mind of an attentive and patient viewer.

Michael Haneke, the director, had earlier made a film called Caché (Hidden) in 2005 which had won him the best Director Prize at Cannes that year. Haneke is the sole author and scriptwriter of the tales of both Caché and Amour. Interestingly both movies/tales have a Georges and an Anne as the main protagonists. A coincidence? This critic doesn’t believe it is. Both films are studies of intelligent cinema in getting the viewer to participate in the film’s tale beyond what is presented on screen. Caché opened and closed with the static camera capturing the external part of a middle class Parisian apartment with hardly any changes in the visuals. The viewer was pulled into the role of the camera psychologically. Amour does something quite similar early in the film. After having revealed the dead body of Anne (Emmanuel Riva), a similar static camera takes in an audience waiting for a piano recital to begin in an auditorium. The camera is not interested in capturing the images on stage but that of the audience. The viewer has to spot the face of Anne just by the brief recollection of the dead face of Anne shown a wee bit earlier in the movie with no additional help from the director or the cinematographer. Mind you, this is not cinematographer Darius Khondji at work—this is the trademark of Haneke and Haneke’s regular cinematographer Christian Berger, perfected in previous Haneke films.

For Haneke watchers, the concept of demarcating the ’outside’ and the ‘inside’ living spaces of our lives is important. Much of Amour is built around the modest apartment of Georges and Anne representing the inside, and only the brief shots of the piano recital auditorium and the trip back home from the recital represent the outside.  The scriptwriter and director Haneke is clear about his intentions:  the subject is mainly confined in space and psychologically to the living spaces that limit the elders physically as they age. The few occasions in Amour that transgress the boundaries are when Anne returns after a brief hospitalization, the open windows that allow the pigeon to enter, and the final decision to go for a walk “outside.”  The one brief segment of the film that stood out for this critic was ability of Haneke and Khondji to metamorphose the ‘inside’ with the ‘outside’ by showing and focusing on the ‘outdoor’ paintings in the apartment walls—that imbued both the pathos of the time with the dark waves of the sea and the recall of the youthful years with the image of a girl/young woman captured in the light of the exterior rays of the sun. This brief interlude of images not only took the viewer outside the apartment, but provides the viewer another opportunity to relate with the tale as an independent observer and make judgments of what would transpire next.

Haneke has another trade mark for his kind of cinema:  surprise the viewer with an action when the viewer least expects it. Both Caché and Amour has such sequences that jolt the viewer.

Haneke, the scriptwriter, has written the tale following an identical situation he is privy to in his own family. One begins to wonder if the Georges and Annes will continue to surface in Haneke’s cinema in the future as in Caché and Amour even though common links between the two sets of Georges and Annes are limited to the fact both are supposedly married and both have the same names. In   Caché, the events in the movie lead to a fracture in the marriage; in Amour, the events only affirm the relationship. Haneke is exploring the strengths of such relationships under trying circumstances in the two films. Haneke goes one step further in both films, he explores the possible effects on the offspring and interestingly both films offer distinctly different outcomes, in one the offspring is indifferent, in the other there seems to be a new awakening of real affection and understanding.

Space in the apartment is optimized to meet functional requirements

The strength of Haneke’s subjects and his ability to maximize the potential of his chosen cinematographers is surpassed by Haneke’s incredible ability to work with his lead actors: Jean-Louis Trintignant (81) and Emmanuelle Riva (85).  (Ms Riva is the oldest actress ever to be nominated for the Best Actress Oscar.) Now Trintignant is a master thespian who has enriched cinema with his unforgettable roles as the brave magistrate in Costa Gavras’ Z and a retired judge in Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red, two cinematic works that standout among a remarkable list of great performances. Riva, too, is an accomplished thespian who considerably contributed to masterpieces such as Resnais’ Hiroshima, mon amour, Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue, and Gilo Pontecorvo’s Kapo.  Haneke coaxed Trintignant, who had retired from acting, to return to play another amazing role. In many ways, this critic feels Trintignant was no less than Riva in acting prowess in Amour. Both actors prove that subtlety is more important in conveying feelings than shouting and raving. Even in Caché, the performances that Haneke elicited from Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche stood out over all else. Haneke is to be admired for this ability to bring out the best in his chosen actors.

When eye cannot meet eye
 
The art direction of the film is very well thought out as well. Apparently the apartment used in the film is a set and even trained viewers will miss out on this fact—it is so well done. While the electronic equipment in the house is modern, the furniture is as old as its occupants including a baby grand piano that takes up costly space in an apartment where even the extra bed (shown at the final sequence) is tucked against the wall. The “crowded apartment” looks empty in the final sequence after the elders have left and the daughter takes their pace in the apartment.  The spatial difference is striking.

Amour proves a point or two to mainstream cinema today. One is the importance of sound (not of music) that is a crucial element in good cinema. The water gushing from a tap for washing dishes is used twice in the film eloquently in a manner that words and visuals rarely achieve in cinema. Then a CD playing the music of Anne’s protégé is switched off. Again Haneke underscores the loaded importance of silence. Most of all, Amour continues Haneke’s constant effort to empower the viewer to get involved in interpreting what is shown on the screen. If we compare Caché with Amour, the latter film requires less of the viewer, and is therefore able to please a larger potential viewership.  Haneke is able to throw the euthanasia question at the viewer without making it obvious. He is able to discuss the lack of love and care among modern-day youth for the elders by appearing to discuss “love” of two individuals who exhibit the epitome of love by caring for the other—even the concierge and wife split their labors (bring up the water) according to their physical condition. Haneke loves to shake up the viewer without appearing to do so.

While Amour is the finest work of comprehensive cinema this critic has viewed in 2012, Haneke has not treaded new paths with this work. The late Maurice Pialat’s French film La gueule ouverte/The Mouth Agape (1974) had dealt with a parallel tale and a similar treatment. That important work of cinema from the late Pialat also dealt with death of an elderly wife, reactions of the young offspring towards a dying parent, the sparse use of music, and ‘deafening’ silence with aplomb. While Amour’s strength lies in the performances and the film’s marvelous end-sequence, Pialat’s work, on the other hand, exhibited both the directorial skills of Pialat and the camerawork of the legendary Nestor Almendros at their very best. Pialat’s movie, with its own fascinating ending, will remain as one of this critic’s top 100 films of all time.  Amour, without doubt, offers a complete cinema experience and the finest movie of the past year with an interesting ending but it is not a movie that opens new pathways in the world of cinema.


P.S. Michael Haneke’s Caché was reviewed earlier on this blog. Though Amour is no.1 on the author's list of best films of 2012, Post Tenebras Lux, no.2 on the list is the only movie made in 2012 to be included on the list of the top 100 films of all time. This is a deliberate decision. This critic considers the Mexican film to be path-breaking cinema, which Amour is not. While Amour has virtues of being a movie strong in departments of acting, scriptwriting and art direction as well, and has the awesome capability of universal appeal, Post Tenebras Lux loses out on those specific aspects. However, if this critic were to choose the better director of the two films, Carlos Reygadas scores over Haneke. The Cannes jury got it dead right while sitting in judgement over the two outstanding works of 2012 by bestowing Amour with the Golden Palm for the best film and Post Tenebras Lux with the Best Director award.

P.P.S. Two friends have pointed out that Amour has two critical sequences that are almost identical to the Icelandic film Volcano (2011) directed by Runar Runarsson, made a year earlier. This new information dilutes my fervent appreciation of Amour.


No comments :

There was an error in this gadget