Movie Review: “Amour” (Michael Haneke, France/Germany/Austria 2012)

Amour won the National Society of Film Critics Best Picture award and seemingly every foreign-language film award there was for 2012. While Michael Haneke’s last film, Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (Germany/Austria/France/Italy 2009) was a pretentious, lackluster effort, his Cache (France/Austria/Germany/Italy/USA 2005) was a truly excellent film. As a result, I went into Amour expecting the best film of the year. Sure, 2012 was not a phenomenal year—I still see Looper (Rian Johnson, USA/China 2012), an excellent film that would not rank in the top 20 of the last decade, as the clear best film of the year—but it still had a number of strong films, and I was expecting that Amour could be the masterpiece that the year was sorely missing.

I think Haneke came up a bit short, but he did provide quite a good film that was simply missing some special piece of originality to put it over the top.

Amour is about the inherent selfishness of love, a point which it makes through the tale of an elderly married couple dealing with the wife’s strokes and subsequent illness by retreating into a wretched, disgusting existence that they hide from the outside world until eventually the husband commits an ultimate act of both love and selfishness. It’s a powerful, evocative plot and well-constructed as a narrative, and it makes the point quite clearly. Haneke is a bit too interested in telling his story and allows some meanderings away from his point, but he stays focused well enough that it’s not a major problem.

We watch Anne deteriorate and Georges respond by trying to take care of her but as a result retreating from the rest of the world, as much because of his own desires as because of hers. She becomes physically and psychologically destroyed, left bedridden and delirious and with no will to live. George is willing to accede to her wishes that she not go to the hospital and play the music she wants, but he cannot accept her desire to die and selfishly keeps her alive until he cannot stand it any longer and then smothers her as she fights against him what little she can. It’s a painful story, and Haneke does not hide just how horrendous her deterioration is or how much Georges is affected by it, highlighted by a painful scene as Georges uses his wife’s unwillingness to return to the hospital to try to force her to eat when she is refusing in order to hasten her own demise. It’s a tragic and pained love story, the type of love story Hollywood is generally not interested in telling.

Visually, Haneke and cinematographer Darius Khondji provide a film that is rather basic in its style but still effective in what it seeks to do. The couple’s apartment is a bare space with simple dark woods, white walls, and clean, high-key lighting. They don’t play around with any high contrasts or particularly interesting color choices, keeping the backdrop antiseptic in a way that accentuates the emotional power of what is going on between the couple but also does not draw attention to itself. It’s not the most interesting or even the most effective of techniques, but it works well enough that the film can hold up. The problem is that Haneke and Khondji just don’t do anything that makes the film stand out visually, through movement, color, or anything else. It’s oddly dull in that way even though the basic techniques enhance the emotional tone of the film.

As far as the acting, we have a tale of two leads. Emmanuelle Riva is truly riveting as Anne, the wife of our lead couple. As she declines, she loses her ability to express herself clearly, and yet Riva’s performance makes her feelings and situation clear at all times. It’s a triumphant performance, the type that should get far more attention than it did. Meanwhile, the real lead of the film, Jean-Louis Trintignant, is not effective at all as her husband. He’s flat and wooden with no real emotion appearing on his face from start to finish, and it seems all the worse for Riva’s presence. The only supporting role with any kind of substance is Isabelle Huppert’s turn as the couple’s musician daughter. She doesn’t have a ton of screen time or much complexity to play, but she does what she’s given as well as anyone could. Her pained, almost disgusted reaction at Georges locking Anne away during the day adds real pathos to a moment that could easily have been laughably over the top, and she is similarly believable in a restrained fashion in every moment on screen. Not being a lead performance limits what she’s allowed to do a bit but she wrings everything out of what she gets.

All told, this is a very well-made film that has two significant problems: a lack of anything terribly interesting visually and simply being a tough watch. It’s not as much that it’s depressing as that it’s physically and psychologically painful. It’s definitely worth a watch, but it’s not the masterpiece that I was hoping for and it’s a bit of a difficult journey to go through. Looper remains the king of 2012.

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Movie Review: “Caché (Hidden)” (Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany/Italy/USA 2005)

One of the great unnoticed jewels of the last 20 years of cinema history is Lost Highway (David Lynch, France/USA 1997), a complex and difficult journey into the mind of a psychotic that opens with a bizarre and unnerving sequence of events: a man awakens to hear a message on his home’s intercom system of himself saying, “Dick Laurent is dead” and then he and his wife begin receiving video tapes in the mail that show their home with a camera slowly panning back and forth across it, moving closer to the house with each tape until finally they begin to show the inside of the home. Caché (Hidden) begins with a couple, the Laurents, receiving long video tapes showing the front of their home but they are unable to find the videographer, even when they walk within inches of the camera looking directly at it. It’s clear that Michael Haneke is intentionally evoking Lost Highway—the similarities are just too unlikely not to be intentional—and it’s because he has decided to make a similarly difficult, nigh impenetrable thriller that instead of examining a fractured mind examines the relationship between entertainment and reality, using that reality-bending nightmare of a film as a touchstone.

The plot of this film, unlike Lost Highway, is simple enough: the aforementioned tapes start appearing and the couple tries to figure out why, with the husband convinced it is related to someone he wronged horribly during his childhood but unwilling to admit his past actions to his wife. Where this film becomes difficult is in (a) the lack of resolution to the central mystery of the tapes and (b) finding a meaning. If you want a typical thriller, slowly unraveling who left the tapes and why before finally revealing the full truth in the finale, you’re simply going to be disappointed. However, the film’s interesting examination of the relationship between entertainment and reality is worth paying attention to.

The film’s central character, Georges Laurent, is a television show host, hosting a book chat show. Every step of the way, we hear references to how odd his fans are and the strange actions that they would undertake, leading everyone to think that they are likely to be responsible for the tapes. There are layers of interest just in this simple fact. His job is to help facilitate discussion among other people about books, another type of media. Even the discussion he provides to the public is not entirely honest—we see him working to edit the show, making an extreme change to the point one of his guests is making, in order to keep the show from becoming “too theoretical.” It’s a cynical point about the realities of entertainment, but it’s also an important part of the theme of the film. As the plot unfolds, we learn that Georges grew up in privilege and—in a rather oblique plot point—got a servant boy his parents had adopted sent away out of only child jealousy and that boy is now a man living nearby. Georges is convinced that this man, Majid, is seeking a noticeably theatrical sort of revenge against him, and unraveling with the strain of his own past. Haneke includes nothing in the film that doesn’t somehow comment on the nature of the relationship between entertainment and reality, crafting a wonderfully focused film even if its meaning is not too readily apparent.

Visually, Haneke doesn’t take the kinds of chances a filmmaker like Lynch or David Cronenberg does. He and cinematographer Christian Berger provide a look that is simple and coolly-colored for the most part, only providing any real dynamics when using carefully placed shadows and high-contrast lighting in flashbacks to Georges’s past. However, they also place great emphasis on camera placement and composition. The film begins with a very long shot of the front of the Laurents’ home that does nothing to draw our attention to the off-center entrance, keeping us disconnected from the home and its inhabitants and reminding us that we are voyeurs into their lives and still not really seeing their lives and also setting up for the rest of the film a constant disconcerting feeling that every long, immobile shot might be a tape rather than “reality.” They continue to defy traditional composition rules for the remainder of the film, most memorably on the closing shot that might provide an answer to the mystery but doesn’t draw any attention to it. It’s a startling comment about how much is spoon-fed to the audience in traditional filmmaking that is only heightened by the narrative.

The acting is good across the board, though few have much to do. Daniel Auteuil has some weak moments but is generally fine in a lead role that hides most of its complexities underneath the surface. Juliette Binoche is a real standout as his wife, imbuing a character who could have been lifeless and one-note with an incredible depth and feeling. Her growing exasperation with Georges throughout the film is played with enough subtlety as to befit a film that is so filled with comments about the nature of film, but is definitely noticeable. The real scene-stealer in the film, though, is Annie Girardot, who only has one scene as Georges’s mother, but is absolutely riveting in a scene that could have been painful to watch but for her simply mesmerizing performance. It’s difficult to be noticeable in such a small part that seemingly has so little to do, but Girardot gives us a beautiful picture of who she is and exactly how she feels about Georges and much else in her past.

A note about the score: There isn’t one. It’s a perfect disconcerting fit for the film’s themes. Too often, filmmakers use a score as a crutch. Going without one can be extraordinarily effective when done for the right reason, and Haneke did that perfectly with this film.

All in all, this was an exemplary film. There’s hardly anything bad to say about it and its layers of complexity will continue to intrigue long after viewing. If Haneke’s most recent film, Amour (France/Germany/Austria 2012), is anywhere near this good, it deserved the remarkable amount of praise it received last year.