Friday, January 11, 2013

Not Feeling the Love: Michael Haneke’s Amour

Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva star in Michael Haneke's Amour

There weren’t too many surprises in yesterday’s Oscar nominations with the predictable choices, Lincoln, Life of Pi, Silver Linings Playbook, leading the pack. I had assumed (hoped?) that The Master would be ignored but it wasn’t, grabbing acting (!) nominations for all three of its stars. The American independent movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, which got four key nominations was a bit unexpected, I guess, but to my mind it was Austrian director Michael Haneke’s undeserving Amour (Love), up for five awards in all, that came out of left field. It’s still rare for non-English language movies to be nominated in the main categories, but Amour snagged Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress nods as well as the obvious Best Foreign Language movie. Haneke is simply not a filmmaker you’d expect America to take notice of, no matter how ridiculously well reviewed Amour was but there he and the movie were, sharing the limelight with Hollywood’s biggest and (supposedly) brightest. And though Haneke’s become a much better filmmaker than when he began his feature film career over 20 years ago, his movies display no shortage of sadism, triteness and camera work so obtrusive that you can’t help but always be aware of someone being behind the camera. Amour isn’t as nasty or banal as his other films but it’s still a movie whose obviousness and lack of genuine interest in its subjects' pain and suffering is as off-putting as movies can get.

Haneke’s earliest films, The Seventh Continent (1989) and Benny’s Video (1992) dealt with potentially powerful subject matter, the former an ostensibly sensitive study of a middle class Austrian family who, dissatisfied with their riches and opulent lifestyle, decides to commit suicide and the latter, a disturbing portrait of a privileged young man, obsessed by video games and not really able to process reality, who he kills a girl just to see what that would feel like. The films were consistent in that they displayed a willful contempt for the bourgeoisie of his country, unlike Luis Buñuel's discreet charm, and a total lack of concern for those they victimize and, of course, for the upper classes themselves. (I didn’t even bother with Funny Games (1997), about the slow wholesale slaughter of a family by two strangers who crash their country cabin. Watching the trailer for the American remake of Funny Games (2008) was bad enough.)

Daniel Auteil and Juliette Binoche in Caché
Haneke’s later movies, Caché (Hidden) (2005), which won him Best Director at the Cannes film festival and The White Ribbon (2009), which saw him cop the festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or, while dealing with supposedly weighty political subject matter were ridiculously slight and simplistic. Caché, albeit a well directed suspense thriller about a well to do French family who are being mysteriously watched by a mysterious someone, simply appropriated the facts of France’s occupation of Algeria before revealing a MacGuffin revolving around a childhood slight – which was all the movie it came to in the end, minor stuff indeed.

The White Ribbon, a supposed examination of the roots of fascism in a small German village, circa World War One, it was really an excuse for Haneke’s staging of a series of graphic and sadistic accidents aimed at the privileged, landed gentry of the town, the film’s message being that sexual, religious and political repression would eventually lead to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. (Newsflash, not all Nazis were sadists –  that’s too facile an explanation for the Holocaust – and Calvinist conservatism doesn’t always lead to a fascist outcome. I don’t recall Sweden’s history or the films of Ingmar Bergman playing out that way.) Only The Piano Teacher (2001) displayed any humanity, as Isabelle Huppert’s portrayal of a middle aged woman with sadomasochistic tendencies was deeply felt. It’s also the only Haneke picture I’ve seen that didn’t feel planned out to the tiniest detail but came across more as a messy, realistic albeit cinematic slice of life. And now we have Amour, less objectionable than most of his movies but no more caring or compassionate.

Though set in Paris, and spoken in French, Amour, which also won the Palme d’Or for best Picture this year at Cannes, is considered an Austrian movie, and is thus nominated in the Academy Awards' Foreign Film category under that country’s banner. (Its Best Picture nomination gives it two chances to win.) But Haneke, who wrote and directed the movie, is riffing on the French traditions of unsparing honesty in cinema, but unlike the movies of someone like Maurice Pialat (The Mouth Agape (La gueule ouverte), 1974) whose frankness about terminal illness didn’t seem subservient to the film’s cinematic technique, Amour suffers from one always being aware of Haneke’s careful framing and pristine composition. Every image is just so, the protagonist situated next to a chair with a bookshelf perfectly aligned in the backdrop etc. etc. The film’s basic tale centers on a seemingly contented and cultured couple, Anne and Georges (Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant) whose comfortable life is disrupted by Anne’s sudden health issues. As she precipitously declines, both physically and mentally, Georges is pushed to his limits and forced to take drastic action.(This is not a spoiler as the film opens after that act has occured.)

Isabelle Huppert and Jean-Louis Trintignant
Amour is certainly a timely film, relevant to many of us as our parents grow older. But Haneke’s take on the subject is undone by how he showcases it and how he treats his couple at the film’s apex as dispassionately as a scientist dissecting insects under a microscope. The camera work as Anne goes downhill fast is merciless and so is Haneke’s treatment of his main protagonists. It’s not the actors’ fault, however. They’re mere pawns on Haneke’s manipulative cinematic chessboard: Trintignant is cast as a helpless, sometimes cruel soul who lashes out at his ill wife; she, in turn, is long suffering and in deep pain but Haneke doesn’t allow any warmth to seep into his movie. Pialat didn’t exactly do so either in The Mouth Agape but at least his directorial touch was a tender one and not exploitative. Haneke simply shoots everything head on and unvarnished, which may be realistic but in its lingering motifs is also offensive. He does reserve his (comparatively mild, for him) sadism for the character of the couple’s daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert). Eva, who lives in London (she’s married to an Englishman) admittedly doesn’t see her parents much but she seems to genuinely care about them and their welfare. So why does Haneke treat her so callously, allowing Georges to push her away and, worse, hide the true facts of her mother’s plight from her? It’s not clear whether Haneke can’t bother to tell us why Georges feels estranged from Eva, if there even is a good reason for that. More likely, based on his previous works, it’s because he doesn’t much like people who show emotion in his movies, equating overt displays of affection with cheap sentiment and weak filmmaking. (That’s also why, I think, so many film critics love this guy’s stuff, since they feel the same way about the purported dishonesty of emotion as the underpinning of any movie, even though countless films from The Apu Trilogy to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial to Of Gods and Men proves them wrong about that faulty supposition.) I wasn’t surprised that Haneke stooped to cheap metaphor in Amour, as The White Ribbon, in particular, was rife with that. Twice in Amour, pigeons get into the couple’s apartment, through their open windows, even though, as Georges exclaims, that had never happened before in all the decades the pair lived there. (Right, as if that’s believable: pigeons, as I know from personal experience, are creatures of habit and either they show up or they don’t unless, I suppose, they’re symbols of darkness or disorder in a Haneke movie.) He also handles a couple of dream sequences in the film badly; their staging is quite clumsy.

In many ways, Amour, laid out as it is between similar opening and closing brackets, taking place in the aftermath of the couples’ fate, is Haneke’s most conventional film. (Caché at least used the camera in interesting, menacing ways and The White Ribbon was shot in beautiful black and white.) But because of its searing and genuine storyline, it also held out the possibility of being his most powerful, devastating movie. Or at least it would have, if Haneke were a director give to feeling and sensitivity instead of manipulation and iciness. He’s not and that renders Amour, except for Huppert’s scenes, the equivalent of a cold fish of a movie. Despite its evocative title, you won’t feel the love.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular film courses at Ryerson University’s Life Institute and will be teaching a course there on What Makes a Movie Great?, beginning on Feb. 8.

1 comment:

  1. Great review! It continues to baffle me why so few critics seem to perceive the exploitative sadism and the banality of this despicable film.