Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
How nice to see both Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva back on the screen! Now in their 80s, these two icons of the French New Wave have lost none of their charisma or acting prowess. The Austrian director Michael Haneke cast his latest film wisely, and is rewarded with a pair of performances that envelop the audience in the sincerity of this tale of love and loss.
Haneke, whose eclectic output includes Funny Games (both the original Austrian version and the 2007 American remake), Code Unknown, Caché and The White Ribbon, has proven time and again that he loves using the tools of cinema to implicate the audience – as participatory voyeurs – in the turbulent lives of his characters. In some films, like Code Unknown and Caché, Haneke creates multiple on-screen realities, through movie sets and cameras that are part of the story, to blur the boundaries of time and space within the world of the movie. In Amour, the actors are the tools this time. In the weathered faces of Trintignant and Riva, we see, reflected back at us, the history of over 50 years of cinema. When, in one of the first scenes of the film, they sit in a concert audience looking straight at us, they are effectively reversing the role of viewer and performer, and directly inviting us into their narrative.
Haneke favors the long takes, in which our discomfort slowly builds as we wait for the cut that doesn’t happen. This is a nice reprieve from the average editing pace of movies in our current age, although it does require patience. In that same opening scene, as we watch Trintignant and Riva from the perspective of the stage, we can be tempted to wonder why we are there and why we don’t cut away. In fact, for those watching who might not know what Trintignant and Riva look like, it would even be possible to see nothing but an audience of unknowns staring at us, since the shot is so wide. This sense of disorientation – Haneke’s specialty – is the perfect set-up follows.
Trintignant and Riva play Georges and Anne, a long-married couple with a middle-aged married daughter (played by the excellent Isabelle Huppert), who are about to have their lives turned upside down when Anne suddenly develops a condition that leads to her rapid decline. As they each struggle to maintain their respective dignity, their love and sense of self are tested, until the inevitable must arrive. But we are prepared to watch their drama, since Haneke puts us very much in their place.
In spite of the potentially depressing nature of the subject, I found this film extremely life-affirming. The careful construction of each scene lends grandeur to even the simplest gesture, even as we remain, for the most part. stuck in the apartment with Georges and Anne. The careful use of Schubert’s Impromptu No. 1 in C minor (Op. 90, D.899) – a piece of music that is autumnal to its core – also contributes to the elegy. Is this a paean to the triumph of devotion, to the joys of movie watching, or to the work of two such great actors? You decide. I am fairly certain, however, that regardless of your interpretation, you will understand why Amour won the 2012 Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival (an honor also bestowed on The White Ribbon in 2009).
One interesting final note. As you watch, I urge to you think about the format in which Amour was shot – film or digital – and to check out the technical specifications afterwards. Are you surprised? Darius Khondji, the cinematographer, has done excellent work, so perhaps he would succeed in any format. What do you think?
Oh – and more thing – what do you think of the pigeon?
Quartet (Dustin Hoffman, 2012)
This was a delightful movie, if very much in a derivative spirit and similar to last year’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I’m calling it “Best Eccentric Musicians’ Hotel,” because, like that other film, it follows the story of a group of elderly retirees who are looking to go not so gently into that good night. In search of second chances, re-dos, and even inappropriate first chances (dirty old man alert!), the aging musicians who find themselves at Beecham House are an entertaining bunch. And in spite of some occasionally hoary and expositional (my spell-check tells me this isn’t a word – I say phooey, it is now!) dialogue in the beginning, the film works on almost every level, leaving you profoundly moved – to laughter and tears – at the end. And isn’t that what art is for, to provide cathartic experiences? I think so.
This film is also Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut. And what a fine way he has with his fellow actors. The four leads – Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Maggie Smith – are all excellent, as are most everyone else, including the non-actor actual musicians who round out the cast.
Based on a stage play of the same name by Ronald Harwood, the story centers on the impending closing of Beecham House, an English retirement home for musicians, for lack of funds. To celebrate Verdi’s upcoming birthday, the residents – all former stars of opera, symphony, cabaret, etc. – plan to put on a fundraising concert. The self-appointed leader of this somewhat ragtag group, played by Michael Gambon, decides that the best thing to raise the profile of the event is to bring back together the four singers who performed a celebrated rendition of the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. The only problem is that two of them – Courtenay and Smith – are barely speaking to each other after a lifetime of jealousy and betrayal.
This being a feel-good dramedy, with emphasis on the latter half of that hybrid word, you can guess how it ends. Old wounds are mended, witty barbs and musical jokes are thrown around, and much fun is had in the doing of it all. Frothy it may be, and perhaps a little self-indulgent in its enjoyment of its leads’ performances, but it is a film worth seeing, particularly if you enjoy even one of the actors in it.
Too bad Dustin Hoffman, now 75, waited so long to get behind the camera!