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NYFF 2012: ‘Amour’ is a true callback to the neoclassical drama

NYFF 2012: ‘Amour’ is a true callback to the neoclassical drama

Written by Michael Haneke
Directed by Michael Haneke
Germany, 2012

Rightful winner of the Palme d’Or award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Michael Haneke’s Amour not only flawlessly brings about a heartbreaking depiction of the somber facets that galvanizes life’s digression, but from a cinematic triumph, harks back onto screen the fundamental unities that make up the neoclassical drama: unity of time, space and action. Amour follows George (Jean-Louis Trintignant ) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). Both in their eighties, retired music instructors, they primarily live a cultivated life in their upscale England apartment, of which the film firmly resides. One day as George and Anne have breakfast, Anne becomes unresponsive and blank. Escaping pleads from her husband, George quickly gets dressed to find his wife regular again and unaware of the event that just occurred.

From this onset, Haneke transcends the film onto Anne’s complete and merciless downfall. The audience eventually comes to realize that Anne suffers a stroke and undergoes unsuccessful surgery of which she falls into the five percent failure range. Asking George, somewhat becoming her death wish, to never seek aid in a hospital again, George unflinchingly accepts his role as caretaker. Testing the plight of his unconditional love for his long-term companion, George devotes his daily life to Anne. He religiously feeds baths and exercises his weakening wife (with some help of in-house nurses and neighbors and none from his estranged and retreating daughter Eva, played by Isabelle Huppert). George is fully aware of Anne’s bleak end, sometimes proving to be tolling on the old man, but the story’s moral is clear just like Anne’s accepted (yet quite surprising) death. Amour, love, has no limits, no judgment. For Anne and George, love comes from years and years of living a full life together in which loves becomes intertwined with the testament of what they would do for each other. Tittering between the balance of drama and romanticism, Amour plays truer to a Greek play than any other film at a festival this year or any film from this century.

Time. If there is one quality to highlight from direction, one that is near perfect and masterful, it is that of Haneke’s structure and discipline of time. Haneke does not handhold the audience at all. Time is dealt as if a character of sorts.  A brash, conquering tour de force type of character that is the antithesis of Anne acting as the film’s villian. Glimpsing Anne’s demise over the course of a year, the film drives forward in unapologetic bounds. This becomes apparent after Anne comes out of the hospital. Reluctant of going back, it is here when Anne realizes that her end is irreversible. It’s here where time accelerates and becomes unkind, making jumps and leaps into Anne’s next perishing state. In a scene where Alexandre (played by Alexandre Tharaud), an up-and-coming pianist of who was Anne’s pupil, comes for a visit, we first see Anne more paralyzed from the waist up. Just scenes prior, Anne was rivetedly testing her new founded mobility of her wheelchair, and moments prior to that, Anne was stiffly anchored onto George’s feet while shifting between chairs to sit. Hanake clearly demonstrates that he has full control of the ship, and the audience is fully aware that it’s sinking slowly. The film in a way plays like a photo album, only this time highlighting the snapshots bookmarking the end. Perhaps the pictures we don’t want to see, but candidly will have to go through.

Even the character’s background stories are crassly built into the story structure. We aren’t dragged by hollow buildup. Instead, we have to make conclusions as to who these people are, why Eva is rather distant to her parents and what will happen to George.  Breaking up the linearization of the year, Haneke interjects the film with flash backs and a pigeon who constantly makes his way into the living room of the apartment despite George’s best efforts to set him free.  Even the ending is a test for the audience to decipher. The beginning plays more of an ending then the climax, where we see police officers barging into an empty apartment to find a decomposing Anne laid to rest with flowers and all. Yet the finale isn’t as literal, juxtaposing the tone of the entire film. For three quarters of watching Anne’s agonizing death, we were expecting the beginning. We knew that she wasn’t going to make it. But now that she’s gone, we are forced to ask what will happen to George and Eva? Haneke leaves that to the audience and for the first time we are left unsure as to what will come.

Space. Like many great films that take place in the close living confinements of an apartment, Billy Wilder’s The Apartment, Daniel Petrie’s A Raisin in the Sun and Roman Polanski’s Carnage all come to mind, Amour also uses this singular setting to get the utmost dramatic appeal. The lack of landscape and distraction of background visuals only intensifies the anguish that both Anne and George experience. We understand that this world we are in only belongs to this couple. When George feels frustrated in giving a drink of water to his incapacitated wife, we are bed side along with him. Claustrophobia hangs in the air coupled with the menacing rapture of time. A setting as intimate as this therefore relies heavily on the actors’ performances and Jean-Louis nor Emmanuelle disappoint.

Action. By focusing on the central conflict of caring for a decaying Anne, both Jean-Louis and Trintignant’s performances are put to the test and indeed triumph without hesitation. Anne goes through a total physical metabolic change, from losing her verbal senses to complete vegetative transgression. Her pain is plastered through facial expression, while George’s emotional woes are seen without a single sound. We see this through a scene when George has to convince Anne to drink a glass of water. Stubborn and lips shut tight, a bedridden Anne spits the water onto George as the retaliating husband slaps Anne in the face without a second to spare and not a line of dialogue uttered. This tug-of-war between living and dying, helping and letting ago is exquisitely fought between the two actors. As many aging actors try to fight age by taking on youthful roles, Jean-Louis and Emmanuelle embrace age and do so with grand effort and chemistry.

If there is one minute drawback to Haneke’s Amour, it’s the film’s lack of watch-ability. This is certainly not the type of watch that a moviegoer will go on line again for.  But then again, with a subject matter this context heavy, watch-ability isn’t on the filmmakers’ frame of thought. Nor should it be. Watch-ability usually suggests a great film, a relatable film that we can escape to. This concept, however, ultimately applies to happy moments. What about the sad moments in our lives that we all experience one way or another? Amour portrays a slice of life that we surely do not want to eat, but all will have to head to the dinner table for. What makes Amour relatable is that it humanizes us. It connects every seat in that movie theater and it does so with absolute earnestness and sincerity.

Chris Clemente

The New York Film Festival celebrates 50 years and runs from September 28 to October 14, 2012. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s official site.