Saturday, January 19, 2013

Amour: a measure of love

Is there a more austere director working in cinema right now than Michael Haneke? There is a steel-cut precision to how his films are crafted. Ordinarily, this Austrian filmmaker's surgical coldness is off-putting (see Cache, The White Ribbon, Funny Games) and many a viewer has come away frustrated because Haneke resolutely refuses exposition or personal commentary on the subject at hand in his films. Find what you will in his movies, which are often structured as puzzles, and if the puzzle goes unsolved, so be it. With his latest film Amour though, Haneke finally finds a topic that complements his style. In telling a story that is overtly prone to sentimentalization, Hanneke's detachment becomes his greatest strength.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in Michael Heneke's Amour
Most of us go to films to be entertained, for a temporary reprieve from our real problems. But Hanneke does something unexpected with Amour. He flips the camera back at the audience. So that instead of an entertainment, what we are seeing on the screen is our own all too real life with all of its unbearable burdens. Quite simply the film is about an octogenarian who has to deal with his wife's sudden decline in mental and physical health. Who amongst us has not dealt with the aging - and rapid deterioration in the health - of a loved one. Is there a greater trial than watching someone you love slip away? By focusing the unwavering camera on the punishing everyday details of an elderly man facing the fading away of his wife, the movie becomes an exacting chronicle of the price this act is going to extract from him. Make no mistake, in many ways this is a horror film.

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in Michael Haneke's Amour
I have to be honest: while I was watching Amour, it did not move me in the moment (was it because it was too harsh, too real, in the immediate to warm up to?) But since having seen it, I am unable to shake it off. It has summoned old memories - of grandfathers and uncles and many others who have spiraled hopelessly into worsening health - and fostered introspection about my own future. And this why I believe this film has resonated with audiences since its release. And definitely with members of the Academy, who have bestowed this french movie with the coveted Best Film as well as Best Foreign Film Oscar nominations.

This is probably Haneke's most accessible film. Forget the usual stupid, superficial depictions of young love in cinema. This film's view of love is for the ages - of love (between two individuals) that has survived across decades, and is immune to analysis, beyond judgment. Of two fates entwined. Does one individual in such a couple have the resolve to submit to whatever it takes to support and care for the other? Every older couple in the world defined by one that is ill and the other who is the caretaker knows of the inevitable end to their story. And it is in this universality that the film finds its power. The film, set in Paris, begins with an explicit reveal of the fate of one spouse. But even then, the last few scenes of the film delve into the mildly surreal and leave a sense of ambiguity - that presents both a puzzle to be solved, and grants a small manner of hope, should you seek to find it, in this grim film. I am still not sure what the exact conclusion of this film is, and while this has been infuriating with other Haneke films, it is transcended by the overall arc of the movie here.

If I have a major complaint about the film, it is in its choice to have this story play out within the confines of those living in privilege. The elegant Parisian apartment in which the couple live seems ironically even more sprawling when it needs to be traversed by those whose physical health is rapidly deteriorating. The husband and wife, well-regarded music teachers, have lived a rich life, both in terms of culture as well as financial fortitude. Might not the central theme of the film been even more devastating had the couple led a less affluent, more middle-class, or even an economically challenged life. In real life, the greater tragedies related to aging are made that much worse due to financial turmoil.

Judge Haneke how you will about his approach to cinema, but there is no doubting his masterly confidence as a craftsman. Like his other films, Amour is constructed almost exclusively of imperceptibly long, elegantly-framed single shots. These actors (and you could not ask for a more marvelous, seasoned pair than Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) do not get a reprieve, as they emote and move in and out of a patiently waiting camera. There is no quick cutting, or sudden reaction shots to grant them any concession. Who but the best actors can submit to this uncompromising way of filming?

There are scenes here that are hard to forget. There is that signature shot earlier in the film of a large group seated in a classical music concert hall just before the start of a recital and there are close to fifty individuals on the screen (which is reminiscent of the closing shot of Cache). Somewhere in this crowd, Haneke places his two protagonists, and if your eyes should seek them out, then fine; if not, well that's another way to approach the film. And then there is another unbroken shot later in the movie where the husband shuffles ever so slowly, pursuing a pigeon that has wandered into the apartment, as he tries to catch it with a blanket. That such little actions of a single person can generate so much anxiety in the viewer is a measure of the film's success.

Amour is easily one of the most honest movies that I have seen about aging.

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