the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Amour (2013)

Bearing Those Ills We Have

One might think a french movie entitled “Amour” would be erotic. Ironically it turns out to be carnal in another sense: bodily, corporeal and fleshy. This is a film about the journey to death. Old age is something that 21st century Americans treat the way our forefathers would approach the topic of homosexuality: something that exists but cannot be acknowledged in polite company.   This film tackles the process with an unsparing gaze. The ‘drama’, if one chooses that word, unfolds in the minutia of the daily grind of a spouse attending to the physical needs of his wounded soul-mate. There is a fine line between being profound and maudlin in approaching this subject. Mr. Haneke manages to cross both sides of the divide. The result is a film which deserves praise; but falls short of being transcendent.

The Friday night showing at the local art-house was half full. This was surprising given the legion of positive reviews. On the “Rotten Tomatoes” website it ranked nearly as high mainstream Oscar favorites: lower than ‘Argo’, higher than ‘Lincoln’ about equal with ‘Zero Dark Thirty’.  Yet the opening showing failed to draw a crowd. This speaks to the dread that general audiences face in examining the inevitable end.  In my own viewing there was a glitch with the new electronic projection system which added to the tension. I heard one woman say to her companion as we waited for the images to appear: “this is gonna be a real tear-jerker so make sure you have extra napkins”.   There was an unscheduled break about 3/4 of the way through as the screen froze but the dialogue continued - this made me feel old as I yearned for the scratchy loud reliability of a 35mm projector.  That brief pause led the elderly couple in back of me to remark to one another “are you okay? we can go....”  They stayed.  It was a good choice. The film is difficult but worth it. No doubt the last sequence will spark much debate amongst couples of a certain age or adult children and their parents. Ironically the State of Vermont is in the midst of a contentious political fight over a proposed law involving ‘death with dignity’; or as the opponents phrase it ‘physician assisted suicide’.  Good art has the power of illuminating a deeper truth via fiction and anyone interested in the issue should make a point of seeing “Amour”.  It will fail to change your mind, but give you sympathy for your political opponents.

Mr. Haneke wisely chooses a dead-pan approach in tackling the subject.  Many sequences channel Andy Warhol’s 1960s one take movies (‘Empire’ - a 5 hour shot of the Empire State Building or ‘Sleep’ a 5 hour shot of a man sleeping). The central difference is, unlike Warhol, this director uses the stark surveillance camera to remove himself from a larger story (Warhol's works were merely advertisements for himself). There is a strange self-consciousness about sitting in theater waiting for the show to begin, while  watching an audience sitting in a theater waiting for a show to begin. It has a hypnotic effect of slowing everything down. This is an appropriate choice for a film set in one location about two eighty year old people. The exposition is carefully revealed in a manner reminiscent of listening to an elderly person recite a story. You bend your ears for clues as the tale will always be prefaced with an unspoken: I have lived too long to repeat everything you need to know to comprehend.  We learn who and what these people are and see glimpses of the past. The puzzle falls into place amidst a harrowing recovery from a botched medical procedure. These are classical musicians who have lived their lives with dignity. It was unnecessary to include the fawning concierge as the couple, Jean-Louis Trintignan and Emanuelle Riva, radiate an old world combination of culture and kindess; devoid of pretension.  They are cultured, respected and respectful. They have lived their lives as teachers and bear the standing of people who are used to being reserved and in-charge. The reality of their new situation tears up the foundation of their world.  In a sense this film is a meditation on falling into an abyss while struggling to maintain grace.

The photographer Phillipe Halsman would ask his subjects to jump after their formal portraits in order to illicit an unvarnished view. These glimmers of, for example, Richard Nixon, with a goofy grin and arms flailing are wonderful flashes of exactly what Mr. Nixon would never want to reveal. “Amour” is the mirror image of those lighthearted glimpses. These pillars of the community are forced to see eachother stripped of all social shields.  The kabuki dance of interacting with the outside worlds is unbearable.  There is a poignant scene in which an extremely successful pupil arrives unexpectedly to thank the elderly pair for their guidance over the years.  The husband greets him nervously and finally relents and goes to inform his wife of the visitor. This moment is one of the highlights of the film as it illustrates the odd conundrum of a husband turned caretaker to an unwilling patient.  He fails to inform the student of his wife’s condition.  This might seem cruel and odd but it illustrates the protective bond he feels towards the love of his life.  She would not want him prattling on about her severe health challenges.  Her dignity is sacred. She has elicited a promise that he NEVER return her to the bedlam  of a hospital.  She enters the room in her wheelchair with her clean clothes, coifed hair, clenched fist and stiff arm, .  The student attempts to hold his feelings in check with respectful banter. He breaks his composure and asks simply: “What happened?”. He knows his mentor will never be able to play again and is probably near death. She responds cooly that she is permanently paralyzed on her right side and swiftly moves the conversation forward by requesting a min-recital. He declines as a schooled student would never want to present a piece without careful practice to this most cherished of audiences. In the end he relents realizing this will be the last time her ever plays for her.  The director never over-milks the pathos and quickly returns to the mundane drudgery of her diaper changing, showering etc....  The husband’s life has evolved into three modes: he sleeps (sometimes waking in terrifying nightmares), he cares for his wife or he obsessively watches the day nurses care for his wife. 

There are other intrusions.  The couple has a daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert, who is a musician with a difficult marriage to another musician. Ms. Huppert’s performance is strong and her interactions with the mother, who at this point has dementia, are heartbreaking.  Her time with the father is less convincing. Although everything is plausible it lacked the transcendence of the simpler silent moments. One of the most gripping of these sketches falls early in the wife’s illness when the husband must take her to the toilet. There are moments when these elderly people appear to be dancing - bracing eachother in a heartfelt clings of love which overrides the horrible, demeaning necessity of the action. Ditto for those quiet breakfast moments in which the husband realizes something is wrong. The script and direction in these simple exchanges rings true to anyone who has been in a long term romantic relationship. It was particularly effective to have the husband leave the water running in the sink while he frantically runs to dress. Only to have his seemingly comatose wife switch off the faucet in a futile act of normalcy.

The director also includes the wonderful, high ceilinged, Paris apartment as a character in the drama. The open sequences shows the beautiful doors being shattered as the police find the remains. The rest of the story is told in flashback; which include many still-life portraits of the book- filled rooms with solid furniture. This is the backdrop to a live well-lived; a success that shuns decorators and pomp.  One feels the ghosts of hundreds of students and thousands of hours of music. Note: the director cleverly marks the piano itself as merely one other piece of furniture; rather than setting it apart as a grand item to be worshiped.  It is merely the forge where the metal is made. This is a real home with real people. Unfortunately the least successful section of the film is tied to the ever present apartment.  There is another recurring visitor to the flat - a well-fed pigeon who makes his appearance known and walks briskly about the halls. This visitor plays a part in the latter stages of the film which felt too obviously symbolic. It was a rare moment where the director caved to sentimentality. This fails to be cardinal sin but it came as an attempt to solidify the husbands state of mind. The closing sequences of letter writing were equally forced. It seems the neo-realist simplicity of the bulk of the film was lost in a more conventionally poetic set piece.  There was no need for it. What was done was done and ironically it said more than 10,000 clever letters or symbolic animals. I also felt this way during the brief nightmare sequence.  Less is more.

In the end, we have the people we love.  Our ability to understand and respect one another is the measure of our lives. There is a code above the law and even God’s law - it is the personal standards we set and uphold with those we love - it’s the essence of what we speak of when we reflect on notions of good and bad. All this need not be so sombre; even when circumstances are dire. Perhaps my central fault with this film is it weighed so heavily on the grief of their lives without holding out the joy:  a little less pigeon; and more laughter. In short it would have been nice to hear the director channeling the voice of John Lennon singing “All You Need Is Love” at the moment in the song where he shouts “It’s easy”. Given the brief outline of this film it seems an outlandish request. However, it is the small moments that will be etched on your mind for decades to come... not the heaviness of the horror. It is said that the “Death” card in the tarot deck is merely a door. It looks scary but you should always remember it is more about increased self awareness and not physical death.  Amour’s strength lies in the life and the noble struggle of two people whose love and devotion outshines the passing grimness. In that sense the Beatles were on the mark; but the love must be encased in undying respect for the WHOLE life - not merely the last note.  It is important to bring extra napkins; but don’t forget the popcorn.  

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