Saturday, 26 January 2013

Dying ain’t so bad…; on Amour and its implacable ways

It is impossible, I think, to get “spoiled” on a film like Amour. Its “end” is telegraphed to you almost as soon as the film opens, although not quite accurately (more on that later) and even if you skip the opening every frame from even before the halfway mark is directed with a decisive indication of what kind of film one should expect from it. Inasmuch as a legitimate spoiling seemed unlikely, with people talking about Amour progressively much since October last year my main take-away from the film was that it would make you cry buckets of tears (of course, I was also told this about Les Misérables, erroneously I believe, but more on that in another post). And, upfront, I suppose it is somewhat fair for me to acknowledge that I shed not a single tear during the film. I do not use buckets of tears as the barometer for my appreciation of a good film but on finishing Amour I kept wondering both why others found it to be such a virulent tear-jerker and why I did not.

The opening scene of Amour has left me confounded days after I’ve seen it and I suspect that even if it’s explained to me (please oblige me in the comment section below if you will) I’ll still be nonplussed as to what it contributes to the film it precedes. Some rescue workers beak into a house to investigate something, we realise what it is when they happen upon a bed where a dead elderly woman lays dead, flanked by flowers. The camera rests on her for a minute and then we cut to the title “Amour”…and the film begins. Haneke, writer and director, seems to be in theory trying to soothe the audience by presenting us with the end result as if in preparation – the woman we will soon come to know, Anne, will die at the end. Except, the film which is so deliberately austere in tone is so obviously heading towards a dunned death tinged end I wonder, why the opening sequence? Moreover, even as the film is moving towards death nothing after that opening is as deliberately why the opening?

Anne and Georges have been married for some years and one day Anne goes static. She is immobile, as if just ceasing to exist. Perturbed Georges prepares to go fetch a doctor, but then she is rejuvenated but with no memory of the incident. Something isn’t right here. The film jumps forward in time avoiding any of the diagnosis and skips forward to after Anne has been diagnosed, treated but ultimately worse off that when she began and now forced to confinement in a wheel-chair. But Georges love is still profound and he is content to take of her so they continue living. Except, Anne’s zest for life is dissipating slowly but surely. She even pointedly admits that she does not want to keep on living. Not really. There is only one way for this all to play out, it’s only a matter of how and when.

I’ve mentioned before about 2012 cinema’s obsession with death, only even as Amour is heading towards a death it doesn’t seem interested in death as much it’s interested in dying and not just dying but suffering – interested in observing suffering. I use observing deliberately because in a year of filmmakers stepping back from their story subjects for varying reasons Haneke’s iciness in observing the situations in Amour is particularly overt. I keep asking myself, why? The opening sequence for example seems faintly sardonic as it cuts from a corpse to the title card of “amour”. Why? It suggests a fatalistic deconstruction of the insipidity of love, except – for all its iciness – Amour is not very fatalistic. Not necessarily because of Haneke, though….The film is directed with an ambivalent tone that’s hard to place but it’s performed with a radiance which the story itself seems to be lacking. Hurtling towards a climax of death might seem gloomy, but with Riva and Trintignant inhabiting their characters they seem to bring out a different theme – yes, death is inevitable and unfortunate…but, it’s hardly terrible when you’ve had a full life.

It’s the letting go that hurts more than the need to and if there’s crippling sadness to extract from the film it’s only in wishing that Georges would realise sooner than later than holding on for too long becomes an exercise in the miserable. I’m not sure if it’s a disconnect I feel, but with the two performances anchoring the film little of Amour seemed potently tragic to me. This is not the beginning of a tragedy, but the end of a romance. (What’s the better alternative to dying with the one you’ve loved for decades?) It’s Haneke’s camera that dips into…not something tragic, but something chilling. The way he creeps through the apartment – where the entire film is almost claustrophobically set – is stifling at times and the coolness seems to undercut the affective push of the main performances and not endorse it. The climax of the film which involves a pillow is heightened and almost visceral, but then it’s followed by a sequence that seems to drag out the meaning of life to something less emotive. I hesitate to say that it is unfeeling but much of Amour is like the house the couple live in. The house is beautiful if stark, rich but not very personal. And it becomes more than just a house because within it are two lovely persons. But, the people are not the house and when the people are no longer the centre of the house (i.e. the film) things get....cold. The final shot of the couple’s well-intended daughter alone in the empty house adds to that. There is no intimacy here. No feeling.

Speaking of which…As the film closes on clinical shots of the apartment with their daughter entering for the last time I’m returned to the opening scene which seems even more perplexing now that the reality of it seems…impossible. If there’s any true thematic takeaway from Haneke it’s probably something Shakespearean along the lines of life being a tale signifying nothing because Amour does not seem to have much to say to me except – people suffer and then they die. Except, except the two lead performances, the three even, (Huppert plays the incidental daughter role beautifully) are so vividly undercutting the film’s powerful descent into vaguely miserablist that it moves from merely an impassive observation on the things which come with quiet suffering to a very good observation (still an observation, but why quibble?) of quiet suffering when tinged with previous love. At the end of Amour I knew I had seen a good movie with two great performances. But I couldn’t admit to feeling fulfilled. The people in it are lovely, but the house they are in is not very warm. This is not a film which moves in colour, it is striking but I never find it vivid. The film is never really intimate but instead so perplexingly sterile in its machinations.

But ultimately maybe the staidness of the whole only complements the vibrancy of the two performances at the centre. And, what more do I need?



Jose Solís said...

"The film is never really intimate but instead so perplexingly sterile in its machinations."

This is Haneke. Period. If you're expecting "feeling" you don't come to him, his movies demand a different mindset, so you can't judge them by preset emotional parameters. I for one, have no idea what you say when you mean you were expecting a tearjerker. Did people actually cry with this? I read someone the other day comparing it to the emotional stuff AMPAS always goes for and it obviously reminded me of your beloved "On Golden Pond" to which this is a complete antithesis. I didn't see anything particularly moving in this movie and I don't think it ever intended to make people shed tears. This simply isn't Haneke.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

jose it's not that i was expecting a tear-jerker and was disappointed in that regard but i've heard so many persons saying they were moved to the point of crying buckets. not crying didn't make me like it less. i did find it cold, though - certainly deliberately, i don't think haneke can frame his subjects like this if he doesn't mean to be cold. the coldness doesn't completely work for me within the story, though. which of course probably means haneke is not ultimately for me. but, then i did like it.

well, it IS the antithesis of on golden pond in terms of being about living and not dying. but other than the old people as leads i'd never have thought to consider them against each other. (i didn't cry at that on golden pond either....)

Suzy said...

Good review, I agree with the description that it was sterile & not intimate.

I admired the film & the excellent performances (Trintignan was terrific) but I too didn't feel anything at the end.

Dave said...

For me, the beginning is Haneke gifting Georges the perfect image of Anne laid out like a saint being discovered in the intimate, sealed world they've lived in. It's possibly the most compassionate moment of Haneke's entire career, actually. It's a rare moment of fantasy for him, a small moment of romantic, tragic beauty.

Amour isn't designed to induce tears, I don't think, but I was left rather shell-shocked. It's more of a film where the emotional reaction expands in your gut, slowly becoming heavier and heavier. In that way, it's very Haneke; where Cache lets the full extent of the sociopolitical horror unroll slowly, Amour does the same thing with death.