Thursday, 20 December 2012

REVIEW: Amour (2012)

Michael Haneke has always been a highly intelligent and critical filmmaker, often saving especial opprobrium for his audience and their expectations. Whether it be his ‘trick’ film Funny Games in which audiences expecting cathartic carnage or the slightly less inhumane The Piano Teacher, which harangues its audience for wanting to see explicit sex scenes, Haneke has always been a little tough to take, if not infuriating – especially if you are watching the films, not for the sex and violence, but for the filmmaker himself. However, Haneke has improved. Hidden is a masterpiece of art house cinema, a blend of seemingly endless interpretations and a remarkable control of effect. He is also credited with a new tenderness towards his characters, as with The White Ribbon, which is horrible and sympathetic in almost but not quite equal measure. Now comes Amour, which is considered to be his most personal and tender film. However, it remains true that Haneke has not dropped his self-reflexive and hectoring tactics just yet.

Anne and George Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) are both retired music teachers. One day, Anne has an attack and her health rapidly debilitates. Having promised not to take her back to hospital, George prepares to care for Anne himself. He is left to watch her deteriorate, practically helpless, with only his strong love for her keeping him going.

Thus goes the plot of Amour, one that would hardly have audiences rushing to the cinema, particularly if they have not read all the glowing reviews or if they were not interested in Haneke the filmmaker. And Haneke seems to be very much aware of this. Following a prologue, which adds little if anything, Haneke begins the film properly with a long take featuring a concert audience filing into their seats, gleefully awaiting the night’s entertainment. An announcer’s voice is heard, wishing the audience an enjoyable evening. The parallel with the cinema audience going in to see Amour is obvious, the joke being that we couldn’t possibly hope to enjoy the night’s entertainment, it being a story about debilitating health and death. Is Haneke then asking us why we are there? What benefit can we possibly hope to get from a film with such a bleak premise? Surely anything positive that can be taken from the film would be insulting or, at the very least, patronising to the people who deal with these problems in reality? Would you like to see some scenes of realistically rendered suffering, all portrayed incredibly convincingly by two of the most renowned French actors of their generation? Do you want their situation to move you to tears? Would you enjoy it then? In short, Haneke wonders, what the hell are you doing here?

In answer to the question, a new film by Michael Haneke will always be of interest because he is an interesting filmmaker. Any filmmaker as good as Haneke ought to find a core audience who would be interested to see his next film, no matter what the subject is. It is not that Haneke is incapable of making a bad film – as Truffaut would have put it in his writings in “Cahiers du cinĂ©ma” and, incidentally, Haneke has – but that Haneke’s films are always likely to be worth going to see. Forget the Palme D’Or win and the widespread good reviews that the film has heavily marketed itself with, it is Haneke himself that may draw a sizable degree of the film’s audience. Indeed, the idea behind Amour, as marketed, is not particularly interesting in itself, sounding more like the stuff of bad Hollywood melodrama than anything else. That Haneke feels he can harangue an audience for being interested in a film like Amour is a clear extension of his earlier ‘trick’ films, like Funny Games and its abortive and regressive English-language remake, and an indication that he misguidedly feels that he can slip effortlessly in and out of his auteur status – attracting (tricking) audiences with generic tropes in order to surprise them with a reflexive and by now recognisable critique once inside.

Amour is littered with such moments as this early concert scene, though never so obviously self-reflexive. At one point, an angry but controlled George criticises his daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) for being ineffectual and unnecessary. George makes it clear that he does not need her help or her pity. Equally, he would prefer for her not to come as it embarrasses Anne and himself. They do not want to be seen in that way and her watching them is not helping anyone. Although these sentiments may be realistic, it is difficult to see where they leave us, the film’s audience, the ultimate watchers of George and Anne. Amour seems to appeal for their privacy, despite portraying their strife in the most acute detail. At one point, a neighbour congratulates George on how well he is coping and George can barely respond. The point is a clear one – the neighbour’s applause is not helping and it is merely an annoyance, a reminder that there is something wrong with Anne. And yet Eva and the congratulatory neighbour are not so different from the film’s audience, who watch every minute detail of Anne’s deterioration and who are encouraged to see George in a positive light. Yet who is most to blame for this breach of privacy – the audience for not turning away or Haneke for not turning the camera off?

Admittedly, it is foolish to consider the film from this angle alone, but yet it is a device that drives a wedge between the audience and the film. Many reviews claim that it is tender and moving and yet it does not seem to be, precisely because it is so self-reflexive and distancing. When Anne has an attack and can only say the word ‘hurt’, the camera watches unblinkingly for many minutes. Riva’s performance here, though undoubtedly one of a sincere intent, feels mannered and out of place. Anyone familiar with Funny Games might expect her to suddenly snap back to lucidity for a brief second, wink at the camera and ask, “Are you enjoying this?” Yet when George becomes increasingly violent, it is Haneke who refuses to look away. In the end, both Anne and George have disappeared and Eva, the previously thwarted spectator, wonders around the empty flat alone. With all the apartment doors now open, Eva is able to see everything uninhibited. Anne and George have hidden away from view, but it remains open to question whether they are hiding from the gaze of the viewer or the camera wielded by Haneke.

Though certain scenes manage to be moving, such as when George watches Anne plays the piano, and tender - the fact that all the music in the film is unceremoniously interrupted as a parallel for Anne’s life - the film is hopelessly lost in a self-reflexive critique that implicates itself as much as it does the audience, if not more. The critiques of spectacle and voyeurism and the intentions of the audience merely make the film appear cold and distant. And yet if the film is taken at face value, as a tender and moving treatment of love and illness, it is horribly patronising by its own standards. If Anne and George want to be left alone to live through this terrible illness in privacy and in dignity, then Haneke should not have made the film. And if he made the film to ensnare audiences, then he is as guilty as any audience member of using the plight of Anne and George for his own ends, be it emotional or intellectual.

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