Love, Movies, and Death
by Collier White
In an alphabetical list, Amour led this year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Picture. The film, written and directed by Michael Haneke, is a catalog of a man’s horrors and devotional ablutions in the months between his wife’s first stroke and her eventual death. Spare and realistic, this story of deliberately unremarkable retired piano teachers, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), is also a favorite among the sorts who point to its assured defeat as a sign for what is wrong with the Academy. Its capture of the Palme d’Or confirms its pedigree. Yet I think if we’re fatigued by nominees that are increasingly loud, brash and youthful, we needn’t valorize a sadistic and voyeuristic movie with very little to say.
There are plenty of things wrong with the Academy, but failing to honor a movie like Amour is not one of them. I don’t mean to beat up on Amour, although I think it’s worth a sustained critical look at what it is and is not, the better to understand the dilemmas that face art-oriented film producers and critics of today. If the current state of cinema is crisis, it’s worth taking any measure of the extent of that crisis. If both the mainstream Academy Award nominees and their apparent marginal, dark-horse foreign pick are as uninspired as this, we will have to look underground for signs of life. If the critical establishment takes a break from beating up on Bigelow and Apatow only in order to praise Amour, the blind are most certainly leading the blind.
Has there ever been a celebrated director with as much contempt for his audience as Haneke? In the satirical horror movie Funny Games (1997), the only of Haneke’s films that he liked enough to make twice, the systematic torture and murder of a vacationing bourgeois family proceeds with the painstaking methodology of a comedy of manners. Toward the film’s middle, the table is upended when one of the family members successfully overpowers the killers. But immediately after this coup, Haneke literally rewinds the film in one of cinema’s most notorious trick shots, telling us that we, the audience, demand more torture. This, and the sadomasochistic dyad that animates The Piano Teacher are the most important features of the muse that animates Haneke. He is a mean and violent sadist whose pleasure in causing misery in his audience is occasionally spoiled by the memory that the audience is enjoying the pain. So, he tries to compound our punishment with shame. I don’t mean to suggest that he is a bad filmmaker. But before we look deep into the eyes of the ironically titled Amour for a story of love and devotion, it is important to know who we’re dealing with.
A few of Haneke’s films have been great, and all of them have featured great performances. The mundane catalog of a suicide note that is The Seventh Continent (1989) is as harrowing a piece of experimental art as the medium has delivered. Isabelle Huppert’s performance in The Piano Teacher (2001) dared our sympathies, but other films (Marina de Van’s In My Skin (2002), for instance or Todd Haynes’s Safe (1995)), have demonstrated female masochisms that are both more extreme and more grounded in materialism. When he’s not restricted to interpersonal relationships, Haneke is often striking around for origins of apparent evil, and at his best he gestures evocatively to some sources with a light hand that does nothing to blunt the horror. In The White Ribbon, Caché, and Time of the Wolf, I see childish boredom, colonialism, and paranoia, respectively.
I almost missed Amour. It first played at Minneapolis’s Uptown Theater, the remodel of which has turned it into Uptown’s ideal of a cinema — a cinema in service of a bar — a room full of pleather barcaloungers that resembles a frat boy’s ideal man cave. When I recently demanded to know why bar patrons were allowed to walk through the theater during the last reel of a film they hadn’t paid admission to, I was ridiculed at such length by the bartender that I will probably never return. That is to say, my appetite for discomfort for its own sake is limited, which may explain my impatience with Amour.
During my screening of Amour at the Edina 4, our local art house ghetto for films for and about the aged, two thirds of my audience walked out, and I wanted to applaud each one of them. The beleaguered audience, each of whom is presumably aware that they were to hate “Torture Porn,” were being subjected to Hospice Porn. The primary merit of this movie is in its evocation of heart-wringing empathy, resentment and misery to which all of us will eventually be well acquainted.
It’s a favorite flattery of the film student to make a gentle-hearted film about the end of life, the denouement of which usually involves the mercy killing. Amour shows what such a film looks like made by an actual septuagenarian. In film school, I assisted on some of those student films, and I’m sorry to say, the result is not different, neither in intent nor affect. Contrast this to the grim but wry Romanian masterpiece The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), about which there are many things to say.
If cinema is to compete with television, we are told, it must demonstrate its ability to outpace that medium. One of the ways it might do that includes the frenzy of interest that accompanies an opening, creating a virtual town hall on its politics and revelations. Witness the conversation on torture that accompanied another nominee, Zero Dark Thirty. While the blogosphere has been abuzz about the film’s accuracy and director Katherine Bigelow’s intent, one fixed point has emerged: the fictional use of torture to extract critical evidence does not play well with the cinema audience because they know, and CIA sources confirm, that it is as ineffective as it is barbaric. For another example among the contenders, take Tarantino’s slavery revenge romp, Django Unchained. Beneath the din of satisfied fanboys, you can hear a murmur of rising malcontent: If a 2012 film about race leaves its white American audience feeling good and untroubled about the privileges that still accrue from the history of slavery, is it a meaningful intervention? One apologist for the film told me that I had misunderstood it: Django Unchained wasn’t a film about slavery at all, but a film about films about slavery. Touché.
We hear daily that cinema is dead and the real action is in television, but for all its NPR water-cooler salience, a television show like Downton Abbey doesn’t spark such a sustained and public conversation. Neither can Amour. This film isn’t a new idea, and there is very little to say about it.
Another way that cinema might put television to shame is in its immersive visuality, but here again Haneke’s film plays it safe. Unlike his spectacular dystopian Time of the Wolf or his haunting proto-terrorist The White Ribbon and Caché, Haneke’s latest narrows the world of influence to include only the apartment of a pair of French petit bourgeoisie. The palette is so stark — off white, beige and gray — that we notice the splash of color on a faded dishtowel, and later the bright red rings around the eyes of the weary Georges. A minimalist masterpiece, some might say. But The Master, which was passed over in nominations for the top prize, uses its clean lines and conservative palette to much greater effect, deploying mise-en-scene to explore its ideas.
I single out Amour for too much punishment. Surely there are other films that deserve more derision. But I don’t mean to deride Haneke’s film, only to suggest that its impenetrable hermeneutic is perhaps not the right antidote to the alleged shallowness of the Hollywood product. I’m sure we can, when given the opportunity to look outside of the mainstream for signs of life, find a better example than this diary of death.
I invite readers, rather than accusing me of not understanding Haneke’s film, to present other great films from the past year that are worth viewing. Of course, if you must accuse me of missing the point, carry on.