Friday, October 11, 2013


suppose that Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (2012) is good for you in an astringent and punishing way -- at least, this is what critics have concluded and the film won the “Palm d’Or” at Cannes. But this picture isn’t fun on any level and its two hour seven minute running time feels like penance for you sins, penance, indeed, for liking movies and the art of film enough to attend a thing like this. As everyone knows, “Amour” concerns an elderly couple living in an elegant and beautifully appointed Parisian apartment. The old woman is a piano teacher and as the film progresses, she suffers a stroke, then, a series of strokes, and becomes bedridden. Her husband has promised that he will not commit her to a hospital and so he attempts to care for his demented and helpless wife in their apartment. After the film has clinically observed the old woman’s humiliating and increasingly grotesque senility for a couple hours, her husband administers the coup de grace, mercy-killing her with a pillow over her face -- this scene, like everything else in the film, is mercilessly protracted and lasts about three minutes. The old fellow seals off the death room, snips the blossoms off some flowers, and captures a pigeon that has invaded the apartment through a courtyard window. He hallucinates that his wife is healthy enough to walk about once more and imagines leaving the apartment with her. In the final scene, the couple’s daughter sits disconsolate in the empty apartment. In the opening sequence, we have seen the old lady dressed in black finery and half-mummified in her bed. A window is open, suggesting to some critics that the old man has been liberated from the suffocating apartment -- although this is a retrospective interpretation of a brief image and a throw-away line in the opening sequence from which the film’s chronicle of physical decay and desperation proceeds as a flashback. Writers have struggled to find a meaning in the film’s brutal materialism, but, I think, the project of imputing symbolism to the picture’s dire narrative is an evasion, an attempt at locating some consolation in the movie that is, in fact, conspicuously absent. In my view, the movie is anti-symbolic, shockingly direct, and without pretense toward any larger meaning -- it is what we see: an increasingly disturbing spectacle of helplessness, disability, and dementia. Haneke is a sadist and his films are cheerless, utterly without any scintilla of humor, and completely depressing. He delights in shock-cuts, for instance, suturing a tender scene in which a woman is reminiscing about making love to an image of two thug-like furniture movers setting up a hospital bed in the apartment, a rack-like apparatus from a medieval torture chamber. Haneke keeps his camera in the middle distance for most of the film, and this keeps the misery just barely tolerable, but, when he wants to jam your nose in the suffering, he shows no compunction at all about ladling out the horror by the shovel-full -- I am referring, for instance, to a long sequence filmed in horrific close-up in which the old man tries to get his dying wife to sip some water, becomes frustrated, and slaps her in the face when she malignantly spits the fluid all over her chin. The movie is austere, without any trace of beauty, and the acting is resolutely non-metaphorical. There are no flights of rhetorical fancy, no raging against the dying of the light, nothing Shakespearian or, even, absurdist about the physical decay and lonely depression that the movie shows. Haneke seems to refer faintly to two of his famous films -- “The Piano Teacher” and “Funny Games”; there is a motif about home invasion, someone has broken into the old folks’ flat in an opening scene, and this incident is one of the few metaphors that the film tolerates: the onslaught of death and the dilapidations of death are like the sinister young men in “Funny Games -- for inexplicable reasons, handsome young men, clad all in black, enter your home and torture you to death. There is nothing in this movie that isn’t completely predictable. The film operates like a geometric theorem. Old age is misery, shame, and humiliation and there is no surcease to suffering except in death. The picture is a relentless procession of long takes lensed by a motionless camera and the images are resolutely quotidian, dull, hopeless -- the film is too proud and austere for anything so vulgar as a plot or any real conflict or, even, any meaningful dialogue between characters. Most of the picture is silent and the few scenes with significant amounts of speech are monologues. Haneke has called the film “Amour” and this title is like the label on an abstract painting -- if Jackson Pollock calls a painting “Autumn rhythm,” we think we see leaves, chilly fall colors, pumpkins, golden trees in the crisp dusk. But this is all projection; we are investing these meanings in the image. If Haneke had called the film “Misery” or “Death” or “Suffocation” -- all titles that would be equally valid -- critics would not write enthusiastically about the love between the old man and woman. The acting in the film (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) is beyond superlatives and affection between the old couple is obvious but it isn’t the main thing in the film -- the principal theme of the picture is the relentless mutiliaton that old age inflicts on us. Critics rhapsodically assure readers that the movie is about “love” -- but that’s a trick played on viewers by the title to the film. We want to console ourselves by inventing a plot-line in the film about "amour," love -- but that’s just a projection, a means of self-defense, whistling in the graveyard to try to reassure ourselves that we are not afraid

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