REVIEW: ‘Amour,’ a Winter Sonata in Love Major
I finally got to see Amour, the Austrian film by Michael Haneke that’s actually in French and set in Paris. It’s not for lack of trying; I simply couldn’t find a theater in L.A. showing it. You would have thought that a film nominated for five major Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress and Foreign Film, would be playing at the Arclight, the best darned cinema in the world. But no. Fandango didn’t list it as playing near me, either. Finally, I tweeted Sony Picture Classics in frustration and reprimanded them for not showing such a prestigious film in L.A. of all places. I got a response that it was indeed playing at the Laemmle Royal in West L.A., which had might as well be London for how often I get over there.
But get over there I did last night, and found this renovated theater to be among the best I’ve ever been to, if not quite at Arclight levels (it is a good $4 less expensive per ticket, which I’ll put towards gas money). It is so new, however, that the marquee hasn’t been erected yet.
I was hoping Amour would exceed my expectations with all the hoopla it generated (after winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes, it swept the European Film Awards), but it was exactly what I thought it was going to be: geriatric Haneke without the bite of his earlier, stranger outings. It is for the most part dull, but never boring, if that makes sense; the friend with whom I saw it fell asleep on several occasions. Having said that, another friend apparently cried all the way through and said he’d go see it again with me.
I could never imagine doing that, but to each his own.
I have reprimanded Wes Anderson in no uncertain derisive terms about his overuse of master shot—the flat wide establishing shot that we traditionally film as a safety to “cover” a scene before we move in to more interesting angles—but that’s because I find it irritating when it is combined with the deliberately wooden performances that he demands from his actors. To place Anderson’s work side by side with, say, AJ Bayona’s in The Impossible, which is unafraid to get in close and real with the emotionality of the human condition rather than reducing it to ridiculously robotic pronouncements, is to say that a comic book from the 1930s is on visual and emotional par with the Sistine Chapel.
Haneke also works primarily in master shot, but to vastly different effect because he uses it to highlight the rawness of the superlative performances by rarely moving the camera or cutting in. This static device also serves to lull you into complacency, as well as make you complicit in the director’s sometimes sadistic voyeurism. In Amour, he explains this device by inserting four or five landscape paintings in a seemingly random sequence at the end of the second act, if this film can be said to have acts at all—let’s just call it the end of the third quarter. By not moving the camera and keeping the frame as wide as a landscape painting, he is letting the tableau speak for itself, open to your interpretation within the parameters of what he has composed for you. Or that’s my personal interpretation, anyway.
Emmanuelle Riva, who plays Anne, Jean-Louis Trintingant’s dying wife, is particularly brilliant as she transforms from a prim, coiffed retired piano teacher into a living corpse mumbling incoherently. Of all the Best Actress nominees, she should win for this, and my bet is the Academy will let her have it.
Haneke is pulling something of an Anton Chekhov here: He’s reconfiguring the characters from an earlier film of his, The Piano Teacher (2001), albeit adding one, Trintingant’s Georges. A number of the motifs are the same, too: classical music performers and teachers; the rigid humorlessness of the French bourgeoisie; elder abuse. The apartments in both pieces are also almost identical, right down to the layout and dirty eggshell walls and trim in dire need of repainting. Not to forget Isabelle Huppert’s appearance, this time in a supporting role rather than the lead.
Riva plays the old woman that Annie Girardot performed in both Piano Teacher and Haneke’s 2005 infuriating, oblique Caché. I have written about my teen-aged experiences with Girardot in a three-part series for these pages. The legendary actress died of Alzheimer’s in 2011, apparently not even knowing her own name. If Annie affected Haneke even one tenth as much as she did me, then I am inclined to believe she was if not the muse, then the seed for Amour, and the reason he chose to set it within the same context and with many of the same characters as The Piano Teacher. The fact that Riva’s character is named Anne would seem to solidify my assumption… And now that I’ve taken my lazy fingers over to Google and searched “haneke amour annie girardot,” I discover I am correct.
It is in referencing my experiences with French people like Annie that I also feel correct in saying that Haneke’s France is heavily Germanized, which is why I agree that this is an Austrian film, despite its location and the language in which it is performed. While no doubt infused with a certain melancholy, and relentlessly droll, Annie was not much like the old women she portrays in his films, or as interpreted by Riva in Amour, although I will own that she might have become like that in later years, when I was out of contact with her. Yes, the French can be fusty and uptight, but they also have an underlying Latino-esque passion and humor—properly called joie de vivre—that is entirely lacking in the director’s work set in France.
For better or worse, richer or poorer, I am the citizen of a country that doesn’t support films like Haneke’s. Unless we are blessed with the backing of a demented Daddy Warbucks who, like European, Canadian, Australian, and a couple of Asian governments, expects no return on his investment, only for us to be fully self-expressed as artists at the tax-payer’s expense, then we must abide by certain rules, and remain within the fairly rigid parameters of narrative film (we’re not even allowed to change the font or margins in our scripts). For this reason alone, I’m glad to see a mad experimenter like Haneke reach the very pinnacle of our profession, not to mention that he is an inspiration for me personally in terms of late-life career.
Having said that, I wouldn’t be interested in making films like his; I still think Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone, which follows traditional dramatic rules, is a far superior film in all respects, and Marion Cotillard’s performance in it is on a par with Riva’s. It would have been exciting to see two formidable French actresses, who have thrown everything they possess into their respective performances, duke it out for the hearts of Oscar voters. I wouldn’t know how to call that race, but it probably would still go to Riva just because it is remarkable that an octogenarian can even now deliver with the timber and nuance of a finely tuned Stradivarius.
Indeed, Amour is constructed as more of a classical sonata than a traditional film that we Americans are obliged to make, my guess is on purpose. As a writer-director, you often feel that you are both composer when you are writing and conductor when you are directing. It is a normal inclination to want to structure your piece as a sonata, or more likely a symphony with sequences as movements; one of my better-received scripts, Hatter, is deliberately written this way.
As a sonata Amour is molto lento, a plaintive tune intended to evoke longing, death and love, and in that respect it succeeds entirely. It is at once a romance and a horror film bordering on torture porn. You are entirely forgiven for allowing your mind to wander to other aspects of the production, such as details of the set, the shade of Huppert’s lipstick and how great she looks, or something else entirely, like your own mortality, just as you would during a lulling classical concert. Or you could, like my companion, take a few naps now and then.
I am frankly torn about what to award this. On the one hand, Haneke’s vision and style is unique and brave, and in this piece he has kept his signature shocks to a bare minimum, but kept that goosing-the-viewer’s-assumptions of his I so admire. On the other, this is a just good film, not a great one, not a Best Picture. So… I’m going to err on the side of generosity—heaven forbid I should be accused of elder bashing—and award it a