Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Cineworld Day 6: AMOUR/ The Best Film of 2012

     Thursday morning at 8:30 am EST, the Oscar nominations will be announced. As is tradition, my Oscar Wishlist will be soon to follow (I essentially only need to see Promised Land, Rust and Bone, and Zero Dark Thirty and I'm caught up for 2012). That night the Critic's Choice Awards will air at 8:00 pm EST on the CW and all of my up-to-the-minute thoughts will be posted on Rodney&Roger's Facebook Wall. Then on Sunday, the Golden Globes will air on NBC (I'll be publishing my Globes predictions/favorites posts for all the major categories over the next few days and will also be sharing my thoughts live on the the Facebook page throughout the ceremony), Before this blog is consumed by awards mania through the end of February though, I wanted to share my review for the best film of 2012:

Amour * * * *

     Early on in Michael Haneke’s latest film, after discovering that his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) is in the beginnings of immanent medical decline, Georges (Jean Louis Trintignant) says, “We’ve always coped” because for him anything else isn’t an option. Amour (love in French) is the film’s title, but also its explanation –the lens through which every scene it contains must be viewed. As Georges and Anne unwittingly stand at the precipice of the future that her health will bring, she says to him, “I don’t understand” to which he replies, “Neither do I.” But they know they will face it together, as they always have. Age, death, and hardship find us all, but O the joy of having someone there with you when they come. And in spite of its heavy-handed material, what a joyous film Amour is.

     Earlier this year in his film Elena, Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev established a baseline of routine. Without cementing a natural order, a change to it wouldn’t have been impactful. Using even less screen-time than Zvyagintsev, Haneke too solidifies a baseline for Amour: In just a few scenes, Georges and Anne’s decades of marriage are clearly defined through their chemistry. These moments exemplifying the love between Georges and Anne start the audience’s love affair with each of them. We love Anne just as Georges does so that when her body suddenly freezes and her face goes blank over breakfast, both Georges’ and our fears are palpable. Haneke’s complete lack of soundtrack in his film coupled with its spacial confinement to the couple’s apartment aide in establishing a true sense of home. These same auditory and visual techniques are what Haneke eventually utilizes to create cinematic claustrophobia and deafening silences.
     By recalling archetypal genre staples of classic horror, Haneke vilifies Anne’s sickness. He personifies it as an intruder. The broken lock Georges and Anne come home to find brings to mind the same invasive foreshadowing Friedkin used in The Exorcist. Rather than a demonic possession though, a sickness has entered this couple’s life and possessed Anne. With Anne’s face blank and body unmoving, Georges leaves the faucet on while he dresses in the other room to go out for help. The sound of running water comes to an abrupt end though, and Georges’ face demonstrates how unnerved he is as he goes out to discover whether his wife or whatever has taken her over has turned it off. When a bird flies into the apartment (another intruder) through their stained glass window (a symbol of the sanctuary that the apartment has become for Georges and Anne), Georges works tirelessly to remove it. Georges even has a nightmare of a break-in and the horrors waiting just outside the door to attack him and Anne.
     Anne is not vilified though. Not to the audience or to Georges. She is seen as a prisoner in her own flesh. “Old”, “sick”, or “dying” are words that may describe the condition of Anne’s body, but never Anne herself who is seen as lucid, vibrant, but trapped inside herself. Even after multiple strokes and the vast worsening of her own state, Anne always seems present –a testament to the inscrutable tour de force that Emmanuelle Riva delivers with her performance. Georges’ love for her in the present, not just the memory of who she once was physically, never wavers. There is a beautiful romance to a scene where Georges asks her to “wrap your arms around me” and the tender sort of dance that follows as he moves her from her wheelchair to a sitting chair. George even fantasizes about her (as she is) playing the piano. But just as when he heard the trickle of the sink come to an abrasive stop, so does her playing in Georges’ daydream.
     As Anne becomes increasingly immobile and eventually bed-bound, Georges reluctantly brings nurses in. One in particular is the embodiment of the insensitivity of the business of death. She cynically expresses that this happens to everyone. Another nurse removes and replaces Anne’s diaper and blandly narrates what she is doing to Georges and Anne. As the camera observes Anne’s eyes as she is treated as an immobile object, one wonders on Anne’s thoughts. Perhaps the fantasy in which she sits at and plays her piano is not Georges’ but rather hers –to escape these moments of humiliating inhumanity. Perhaps it belongs to them both… it is their communal fantasy.
     Before her condition deteriorates, Georges helps Anne through physical therapy, helps to feed her, helps bathe her. He and the film treat her with the utmost dignity –a dignity she deserves. When an old piano student of Anne’s comes to visit he calls the moment sad. But naming it as such shows pity, and Georges and Anne don’t want pity. Even after one of Anne’s strokes, the words that escape her ("...It's hard to say...") contain lucidity. Haneke never sentimentalizes her illness, never exploits her character to milk audience tears. But then a shot reveals her bare upper thigh as Georges helps her stretch. In another scene she wets the bed, soaking the sheets. Haneke makes much of her shame. Later on she is shown entirely nude and exposed as she is washed in the shower.
     I felt betrayed. The dignity that this character, this woman, that Emmanuelle Riva deserved was stripped away. Haneke had exploited her to manipulate his audience’s sympathies. But then I realized that these scenes were wholly indicative of truth. Yes, Anne deserves more than the belittlement her ailments bring her, but so does humanity. Such is the indignity of death. It isn’t Haneke’s to dignify.  It’s not exploitative. The film looks at her condition as it would truly be. I came to appreciate Riva’s bravery in taking on a role in which she is demeaned by death. The mandatory dehumanization that death eventually forces upon us all, she voluntarily underwent for the sake of showing what love (amour) is in this story.
     At the very beginning of the film, Georges and Anne go to a theater to watch a concert by one of her former students. Haneke’s camera observes them for an extended period (as Glazer’s did Nicole Kidman’s face in Birth), beholding each and every nuance of both of their reactions even before the concert begins. They don’t know about the invader of illness soon to enter their lives –a sickness that won’t just belong to her but will be shared as theirs, forever changing them both. Just as George and Anne don’t know what’s to come, neither does the audience. And just as the film’s start focuses on an audience reaction, so its end produces one. Without Georges by her side, Anne’s story would have been a tragedy -a horror tale, as Georges’ would have been without Anne to care for, and pour his love into. But theirs is a love story, and thusly we react. We react to its beauty, to our mortality, and recognize that our shallow assignations of importance are relative. For it is no thing keeping us from facing either life or death alone, only Amour.
P.S. Stay tuned for the first of my Golden Globes Posts! And don't forget to vote in Rodney&Roger's weekly polls *located in the upper right-hand corner of your screen*!

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