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.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

137. Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ film “Post Tenebras Lux “ (After Darkness, Light) (2012): Visually and cerebrally stimulating cinema.

Carlos Reygadas is one of the few exhilarating filmmakers alive and actively making movies.  His films are never easy viewing.  His films’ images and his films’ soundtrack stun your senses with their groundbreaking ability to make you wonder why other filmmakers did not employ those ideas before.  Then he goads the viewer to reflect and figure out how best to solve the puzzle he has presented on screen. Post Tenebras Lux does just that. It can either elicit your boos or it can open the viewer’s mind’s eye wide in awe. The film won the award best director at the Cannes Film Festival 2012  For this critic, the film is the only film made in 2012 to find a slot on his list of all time 100 best films.

If we deconstruct the movie Post Tenebras Lux, the viewer could perhaps begin to appreciate it.

Rut Reygadas as Rut, daughter of Juan

First, the film is not based on any novel or play—it is the original idea of Carlos Reygadas, scriptwriter and director.  Now when a filmmaker makes a film, the choice of the title is crucial as the title reveals the film. The title is a Latin phrase for After Darkness, Light. Where did it come from? It has its origins in the Vulgate version of Book of Job 17:12, a book in the Holy Bible, and the character Job is equally revered by Jews, Muslims (Job is discussed in the Holy Koran) and Christians. Interestingly this phrase was the motto of the Protestant reformation in Europe as it split from the Roman Catholic Church. This phrase was also the state motto of a country, Chile. The theological connection of the title is not accidental if one considers the fact that Reygadas’ previous film was called Silent Light, a subtle and mischievous play on the Christmas carol Silent Night, with the amazing night to dawn sequences that begins and the reverse sequence that ends that film. The choice of the title Post Tenebras Lux gives the viewer adequate clues to understand and appreciate the theological connection to the film, in spite of the absence of conventional religious symbols, such as crosses, churches, prayers, or even a direct mention of God.


The opening sequence of Post Tenebras Lux, is another evocative play on light and darkness that recalls the opening and the end sequences of Reygadas’ earlier work, Silent Light.  One of the cutest toddlers on screen, Rut Reygadas (real-life daughter of the director), is out in an open field talking to pet dogs, horses and cows in twilight as ominous dark clouds gather, thunder booms and lighting strikes, and light fades to embrace darkness. Darkness and light are metaphors of what is to follow in the movie.  If the visual metaphors were to be limited to goodness and evil, Reygadas prods your mind further with the appearance of a computer graphic generated priapic devil glowing red and carrying a mysterious tool box once at the beginning and later towards the end, to underscore the theological element in the movie. The silent devil is observed by the male child, Eleazar, one of the two innocent kids in the movie and very importantly the devil leaves the kids alone—the devil is interested in someone else in the house, the adults.  The children remain uncorrupted by the devil. Eleazar is again the son of the director.

Second, is the film an imaginary one or is it autobiographical?  Much of the film is indeed autobiographical if we pick up the details. The two lovely kids in the film are Reygadas’s own.  The lovely wooden house is again his own dwelling.  According to reports, the shots with the devil were taken in the house the director grew up in and the toolbox carried by the devil belonged to the director’s father. The movie is dedicated to his wife, Natalia López, who is the film’s editor. Interestingly the wife of the protagonist in the film is called Natalia an obvious nod to the director’s real life wife. Finally, Reygadas picks an actress Nathalia Avacedo, with a similar given name. Carlos Reygadas daughter is called Rut and so is the protagonist’s daughter in the film.  The same goes for his son Eleazar. Reygadas has studied in the UK and has played rugby for Mexico’s national rugby team, facts which explain the rugby players speaking English shown twice in the film. Reygadas is apparently closely connected to the Mexican rugby team as well. 

The rugby game

Third, is the film only about two nuclear families? If you look deeper into the film's structure, the differences between the two families underscore the social divide in Mexico today. The obvious focus is on the family of Juan and Natalia, and their two cute kids.  They live in a beautiful upscale wooden house in an idyllic location far from the hustle and bustle of commerce and city/town life but they are serviced by poorer sections of Mexico’s inhabitants. Juan and Natalia could easily pass off as Caucasians but the workers have features that are typically native Mexican. In the middle section of the film, Reygadas introduces the viewers to a range of males who speak to the camera as though they were being interviewed by the director and admit to struggling with their problems including one who is a drunkard who has joined the Alcoholics Anonymous while Juan admits to be addicted to internet pornography. Another interesting male talking to the camera is a key figure named Seven who has installed most of the costly fixtures in Juan’s dream house and is apparently close to his boss, Juan. Much later in the film Reygadas shows two sequences of Seven’s “interactions” with Seven’s own nuclear family. There are vignettes of Juan trying to get closer to his workers’ world when he visits the rural pub, where the drunks reveal more of their lives. The social divide between the rich and the poorer sections of Mexico is amply evident in the film, as is the silent rage of two male individuals coming to terms with their own “dark” lives to find “light’ in different and distinct ways,  according to their financial and social status.  The women in both nuclear families are the ones often abused and forgotten, and yet the women seem to shake off their bonds. Reygadas’s women are not easy to decipher—there is a grandmother who hands out large sums of money to her grandchildren urging them to be “businessmen.”  There are rural women who want trees to be cut down for trivial reasons. Did Natalia leave behind some luggage in the house knowingly? Natalia reveals this after Juan holds her hand in the car and she lovingly strokes Juan’s hand before revealing this fact forcing them to turn back. The nagging doubts for the viewer lead us to the fourth element in the movie.

The fourth way to approach the film is by trying to reason individually what is real and what is an illusion, a dream, or an epiphany in the movie.  Reygadas throws another clue at the viewer: Juan asks his wife Natalia to play some music, specifically the Neil Young song “It’s a dream.” Any other director would have got the song sung professionally—but Reygadas makes the singing deliberately look amateurish. It is not the singing that he wants you to appreciate; it is the relevance of the song. Natalia cries in the process. What then is the dream in the film? The dream of a happy “casa”? Remember young Rut’s few words in the opening sequence, and one of them is “casa” or the Spanish for house. There is a link between generations and the house is a suggested metaphor. Evidently the devil carrying the grandfather’s toolbox is only perceived in the movie by the male grandchild in the casa, no one else.  The devil sees the child but is only interested in the parent’s bedroom.  The woodcutter in the film watches as tall trees fall down in the woods as thought they were falling by themselves. The entire film and the tale of the two nuclear families is from a male standpoint but the women, silent as they seem change the flow of the narrative at decisive moments, leading to downfall/self-realization and eventual mortification of the male head in each of the two nuclear familial units. Is the film made by a male director with no concern for the women? That query seems to be negated by the fact that the director has dedicated the entire film to his real life wife and the film's editor. In fact, the "Duchamp" sequence aids Natalia to transcend inhibitions and realize that she is attractive to men. (One of Duchamp's famous surrealist paintings is called  'The bride stripped bare by bachelors, even'  that could have some relevance to the sequence.)

The ‘trees’ do fall in the Mexican garden of Eden and they fall at random towards the end. Trees have visual and metaphorical importance in Post Tenebras Lux. The surprising request made of the woodcutter to cut down a harmless tree because it bothers some women makes a subtle connection with the viewer. So do the parallels of two Mexican family heads as they return to their individual “casas” imply a more significant action as the men realize their individual follies quite in contrast to their silent but strong wives who take care of the children and prepare the family meals.

Natalia, Rut and Eleazar in their "Garden of Eden"
A fifth way to deconstruct the film is to divide the movie by two obvious sections, and the dissection is made by the camera using the refractive image at the edges in some sequences and not using the unusual magical effect of cinematographer Alexis Zabe  elsewhere.  A close study of the film reveals that the refracted images are used for outdoor sequences and not for indoor sequences. Is Reygadas suggesting that the refracted image of what is done outside is less real than what is within the “casa”? One clue to this is the brutal killing of a pet dog (off-screen) by Juan and the self-repentant statement “I hurt those that I love most. You must help me stop doing this.” or words to that effect. Refracted images are real, it only provides the perceiver an “unreal” view. That this critic believes is the way to approach this work of Reygadas. When the child Eleazar Reygadas playing Eleazar son of Juan states that his father is dead it is a case of refracted reality. Do children lie? Of course, not. At the same time you do not perceive Eleazar as a child who has lost a parent. And it is Eleazar who alone is able to see the visits of the devil.

The devil enters the house/casa

A sixth and a crucial way to figure out Reygadas’ cinema is to accept that he is religious and is consciously adapting bits of the Bible into cinema in a personal way, just as Terence Malick does in his films. The only marked difference between Reygadas and Malick is that Reygadas constantly falls back on the carnal aspects of the human being in every work, a method that Malick studiously avoids. The religious elements in Post Tenebras Lux are never obvious, except for the shots of the devil. The first question for a viewer would be to ask if Reygadas is religious or a person questioning religion.  Reygadas’ own children act in the film with their own given names, Rut (for Ruth) and Eleazar, both names of characters in the Bible.  You do not choose to give such names to your progeny merely because it sounds good—Reygadas, one suspects, has sufficient knowledge of the Bible. If the viewer accepts this pre-condition, several bits of the film become loaded with Biblical parallels. The suicide of Seven in a lonely open field has parallels with the suicide of Judas and the potter’s field, following Seven’s remorse of having killed his master Juan. So does the image of the lonely tree in an idyllic garden of Eden in the Mexican landscape take on added significance, when tree cutter is asked to cut it down illogically for metaphorical reasons. 

This critic went back to the Book of Job 17, from where the title of the film is taken. It is interesting that the chapter after the verse 12 which states that the dejected and lonely Job’s philosophical words “hope is in the world of the dead, where he will lie down to sleep in the dark, and I will call the grave my father, and the worms that eat me, I will call my mother and my sisters. Where is there any hope for me? Who sees any? Hope will not go with me, when I go down to the world of the dead.” These lines from the Bible could explain several aspects of the film, otherwise intriguing. It is Eleazar who sees the devil and who states that his father Juan is dead later to Seven.

Isn’t it an interesting coincidence that both Malick’s Tree of Life and Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, two structurally and thematically close works both indirectly refer to the Book of Job? The only stark difference in the two works is that Tree of Life allows for family viewing, while Post Tenebras Lux is strictly for mature adult viewing, thanks to its few carnal sequences.

This critic would like to refer to Reygadas’ statement made to Anna Bielak in an interview published Slant magazine:  “The film may seem mysterious at first sight. But I really hope that by not giving you any simple answers, you eventually feel how much I respect you as a viewer, how I respect the movie in terms of art, and how much I respect myself as a director. The film is what it is. Talking about it afterward makes me feel dishonest. I demand a lot from the audience and I don’t have any limits, that's true. However, I am a free man, and I may do what I really want. I am giving you the best of myself, and I strongly believe that all around me there are lots of people more sensitive and intelligent than I am. Every single person is different, is focused on other things, feels different emotions, and tries to find their own way through the movie, and is able to find their very own and unique interpretation of the story. One viewer could love the film; the other one, as sensible as anyone else, may hate it for a very good reason. Moreover, I am a viewer as well. I watch lots of movies, and I truly appreciate the directors that don’t try to lead me by the hand through their stories. I want to be considered one of them.”

The importance of trees in the Mexican "Garden of Eden"

Reygadas has stated elsewhere about the film “The whole idea of “light after darkness” seems appealing to me in terms of intimate experience, of being a human living in a Western world. In a sense we all live in the darkness of our daily frustrations. Yet, I hope the light would come after us to enlighten the world for our children.” Reygadas has also stated in another interview that the film Post Tenebras Lux is about Mexico becoming evil and that “the real title of my film should have been 'My country is bleeding. Mexico is bleeding’” The film does appear disconnected but the film can be connected up with a bit of reflection and some effort to pick up the references. Post Tenebras Lux is not easy viewing but complex and personal cinema, rarely encountered, and one of the finest films of 2012.A rugby team appears to be losing, but there is hope for the losing team, if they play as one. The movie telescopes the individual into the refracted reality of the home/casa/family and subsequently the country. Like Job, there is hope if one is resolute in what you believe. So too, for Mexico. So too, for Juan’s children.

P.S. Reygadas's Silent Light (2007) was reviewed earlier on this blog. Post Tenebras Lux figures on the list of the author's best 10 films of 2012.