Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Amour - The Losing and the Letting Go

Sometimes, if you’re lucky, a film comes along that tells a part of your story. When that happens, it means a lot. Sometimes, in one’s own quiet expressions of grief, it’s profoundly moving to know that someone somewhere understands where your journey has led, and that you are not alone in your suffering. Amour is that kind of film.

Michael Haneke has made a living out of cinematic trickery and deceit for so long that it’s shocking to see him actually try to tell the “truth,” or at least his version of it. For a filmmaker who’s spent years imposing his will on audiences by routinely confounding everything they thought they'd learned,  Amour is a surprisingly heartfelt piece.

As a story of the breakdown of a body after a life-altering moment, the film gets the details right. The blank stare, the withering hand, the agonizing attempts to walk, the way that lips are held, the helplessness felt by the loved ones of the sufferer, the way that a person is lifted and manipulated so that they can perform basic functions, the crying out, the repetitive attention to specific details, the way that the caretaker’s body begins to feel the strain of having to repeatedly exert itself in heretofore unusual ways, they’re all here. More importantly, they’re all handled with a delicate touch that shows a great deal of respect to the reality of situations like this.

Emmanuelle Riva’s performance is one of the best that I’ve seen thus far this year. If there is no respect from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences . . . it will be a further sign of their irrelevance. Her performance doesn’t rely on histrionics or huge moments of expressed emotion. It’s in the little details that she finds a way to bring Anne to life. Her performance is a triumph by any standard, and one of the finest in recent memory.

Trintignant’s performance is good too, but it’s certainly not the equal of Riva’s. They're blessed with a wonderful chemistry. It's not difficult to believe that they've shared a lifetime's memories. There’s a moment when he’s trying to get her to drink water, and she doesn’t want to have any. He forces it into her mouth, and after she spits it back at him, he slaps her. Part of me wishes that that sequence was not in the film, but another part of me understands the kind of frustration that could lead a person to do something like that. There’s a unique pain/frustration that comes from trying to feed someone who does not want to eat. You know that, if they don’t eat, they’ll die, but, at the end of the day, there’s only so much that you can do. The human will is stronger than you realize. After the slap, she swallows. It might be one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen on a screen in a long time. She does it in such a defeated way, and it’s painful to see.

Isabelle Huppert, one of my favorite actors, does fine work as their daughter. She means well and wants to help, but just can’t understand. It’s hard to blame her. When she tells her father that he can’t keep doing this, he’s right to ask her the question he does. It’s so simple. “What should I do different? This is what I do when I wake up. This is what happens next. This is what happens after that. This is the exact structure of my day. This is what I have to face every single minute of every single day. What should I do differently?” It’s a scene that involves two people doing what they have to do, even though their ideas are at odds. She has to tell him what she does, and he has to respond as he does.

I know what she means about her father not continuing to face the day-to-day struggle, but he made a  promise to his wife that she’d not have to face any more hospital visits. He makes this promise even with the realization that more medical care will probably be a very necessary part of their lives. Even though a hospital can provide ten times better care than he can, he gives freely, even to his own hurt.

The love between Georges and Anne is special, born of time and common experience. The promise I mentioned is indicative of that. He gets to a point where caring for her himself is almost unbearably hard, but he promised. Simple as that. There are certain things that we owe to our loved ones that no amount of time or hardship can separate us from.

I also really liked the way that he deals with the incompetent nurse. “I hope that you have the misfortune to be treated exactly the way that you treat your patients when you are helpless.” It’s one of the most satisfying moments in the film. Prior to that, it was easy to see that this nurse wasn’t any good at her job and was causing more harm than good to the one person that she was supposed to be caring for. I just wasn’t sure if this fact was supposed to be self-evident to all. I don’t think that being gentle is difficult, particularly as I get older. There’s a strange way that certain people feel the need to belittle those that are different from their own experience. I don’t really understand it. If what my own life has taught me is to be believed, the people who matter most are rarely the people who get the best press. The quiet person who stands in the corner might be the best friend you have.

Haneke is still not entirely comfortable with the idea of a completely straightforward narrative, which might not be fair to him, as finding something you think you’re good at and sticking with it isn’t necessarily a form of weakness. However, his framing device is a gentler one than usual, and isn’t as reliant on him imposing his will upon the audience. Typically, a Haneke film ends with or is generously sprinkled with instances of his reminding the viewer that there’s someone pulling the strings and that that person doesn’t answer to anyone. Fortunately, here, it’s a bit more effective. I think that the ending most resembles Cache, but where that film was frustrating in its arbitrarily elusive turning of the screw, Amour’s ending holds up. It’s a quiet secret that’s spotted, unsurprisingly, in the details.

To say that I feel a sense of gratitude to Haneke, Riva, Trintignant, and Huppert would be an understatement. I’ve been looking forward to this film for years. I just didn’t know how much my own life would change in that period of time, or how closely my experience would be reflected in the narrative. Given how easily certain filmmakers/actors might have treated material like this in leaning toward melodrama at worst or sentimentality at best, it’s a blessing to see such restraint at work. Ultimately, the lack of sentimentality in Amour does the best service to the emotional integrity of the piece. In trying to avoid the creation of a disingenuously emotional experience, Haneke and his actors have found a way to express the most sacred of emotions with respect, conviction, and sincerity.

One of the very best films of the year.

4 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Amour was the recipient of the Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, as well as a host of other prizes. I think this is looking like a sure thing for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, and would not be surprised to see it pick up additional nominations, including Best Picture. 

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