john cribbs

A funny thing happened to me after the Toronto Film Festival last September. For the first time in my 8 year history of attending the festival, I couldn't get excited enough to write about any of the thirty to forty movies I saw. What made this especially strange was that most of them ranged from very good to excellent, with only 2 or 3 truly lamentable screening experiences (that means you, Aftershock.) Even films I didn't much care for were at least interesting enough to warrant discussion - it would have been no task to sit my ass down and transcribe a few impressions of the films I saw. But for some obscure reason, every time I tried, I would sink into an unaccountable sullenness. What the hell was wrong with me? I'm awful at deadlines, but I've never hit a wall with an article the way I did those three months following the festival. Weirdly enough, Funderburg also professed a complete lack of motivation to share his feelings on TIFF '12 in print, although he had more legitimate reasons for being preoccupied. No real excuse on which to blame my lack of motivation: I honestly had no idea why I couldn't get a TIFF '12 series started (I did immerse myself in the 300+ cartoons of Chuck Jones immediately after returning from Toronto, but have had plenty of opportunity to return to the TIFF titles since then.)

It took me months to realize it, but I've finally got a theory as to what made me so resistant: it was Amour. Michael Haneke's Cannes-do drama was already the talk of the town by the time we touched down in Toronto, a pre-packaged critical darling from a controversial master whose acclaimed career had never seen such unanimous approval. Even The White Ribbon, his previous Palme d'or winner and Oscar nominee, seemed to have as many detractors as enthusiasts, with some interpretations of the film being so wrong-headed it didn't matter whether the reviewer in question liked it or not. Although Funny Games, The Piano Teacher and Caché enjoyed largely ardent receptions upon release, prior to its North American debut Amour was more or less already established as the director's most widely accepted masterpiece. And while I am instinctively suspicious of films that receive almost instant universal praise, I had no reason to believe Haneke's latest would be anything less than another homerun from a director whose last nine films*range from unquestionably excellent to distinctively brilliant. I think even his naysayers would have to admit that their aversion to his work is a matter of personal taste rather than a question of quality; that while you may not appreciate the way his films make you feel you have to at least concede their complicated and challenging ideas.

Several audiencemembers (who often find themselves in more active participation with the films than they may have been prepared for) have accused Haneke as having too clinical an approach, of intellectualizing his subjects to the point of emotional detachment, and of being intentionally opaque when it comes to his film's resolutions. If the director does make the decision to distance himself from his films' quite evidently difficult subject matter, it shouldn't be confused with a lack of empathy for his characters, or a way of condescendingly placing himself above the audience by acknowledging cinematic form as it plays out, which is specific to Funny Games but also applies to the unsolved mysteries of Caché and The White Ribbon and the ambiguous ending of The Piano Teacher. Just because Haneke's characters punish themselves and each other doesn't mean he wants the audience themselves to suffer, or to make them complicit in on-screen murder and sadomasochism, only that he wants to explore the film-audience relationship. As Haneke himself has attested several times (and Chris Funderburg elaborated upon in his excellent article on The White Ribbon), he isn't interested in providing answers, he just wants to ask the questions better. There are always multiple layers to Haneke's films beyond his scholarly observations on the desensitizing effects of isolation: he doesn't just question why his characters' comfortable existences are interrupted by some life-shattering event, he wants the audience to take a look at these people and ask, what do the circumstances of their existences have to do with it?

That kind of complicated texture is what I expected, not unreasonably, from Amour. As it turned out, I exited the theater with the same kind of absent expression as a stroke-struck Emmanuelle Riva on the poster's now-familiar image. I wasn't stunned, or profoundly effected...looking back, I guess "underwhelmed" would be the best word for it. When my colleagues inquired about the movie, my response was largely made up of non-committal nods. What I'd sat through had been, with little variation, pretty much exactly what one would expect from a story about two old people facing their impending mortality: the early signs of trouble, the dreaded diagnosis, the premature indications that everything's going to be ok, the sudden decline of health, the intrusion of those who don't understand what these people are going through, the gradual withdraw from life and the ultimate heart-rending mercy killing. In essence, the same progression as the montage at the beginning of Pixar's Up! (minus the mercy killing.) That Haneke would opt for a simple story and stay away from the multiple characters and subplots of The White Ribbon was a given, but I didn't expect the film to be so much undemanding fluff. And I don't just mean that it's more accessible or easier to understand than his previous efforts, although the amount of surface detail and moral clarity of Amour feels incredibly uncharacteristic for a director whose films are normally so elusive. There's just nothing beyond what you witness onscreen, none of Haneke's penetrating inquiry or surprise.

In fact surprise is the first thing Haneke takes away from the audience, opening with a prologue in which firemen and cops (led by Laurent Capelluto from A Christmas Tale) break down the door to Anne and Georges's apartment to find Anne's decomposing corpse in the bedroom. Having established Anne's fate (and leaving an only slightly tantalizing, ultimately unsolved mystery as to Georges' whereabouts), Haneke flashes back to the narrative proper with Anne and Georges returning home, where they'll spend the rest of the movie, to signs of an attempted break-in.** This suggestion of home invasion - weirdly connected, in a nice touch, to the previous flash-forward in which the couple's death has invited a full invasion of their insulated home - instantly recalls the intruders of Funny Games, the invasive video that kicks off Caché, the armed squatters from the first scene of Time of the Wolf and the various anonymous assaults and vandalism from The White Ribbon that begin as soon as the movie starts: instant dread happens to be Haneke's calling card. But the couple, quickly ascertaining that no actual danger presents itself, shrug it off instantly: they're so secure in their holistic existence that nothing can touch them. Free from the threat of gloved killers or some undetermined apocalypse (hell, the world could end and these two might not even realize it), their existence seemsideal for an artistic and intellectual couple in their 80's, until one morning Anne's face turns vacant and she's suddenly not there.

On one hand, it seems like the ultimate cruelty, Haneke saying "yeah, tragic and traumatizing things could happen...but even if they don't, your body is still going to betray and start to kill you one day." When Anne stares blankly at her husband, a stranger, it's almost like for a moment she's become death itself, having forced its way into their home and their lives,impartial to his pleas for recognition and restoration of normalcy. This brush with oblivion signals the ultimate threat to two people with no fear of the outside world: a natural force that tortuously erases one of them from existence (specifically, a debilitating and humiliating illness.) But has death ever really been the constant threat in Haneke's films? More often death is a release, like Majid's suicide in Caché - the real anxiety remains with Daniel Auteuil who, like the survivors in Time of the Wolf, is left to anguish in guilt and uncertainty. But since Haneke reveals Anne's fate from the onset of Amour, the unbearable irresolution that normally plagues his characters is instead a foregone conclusion. Death, inevitable and - particularly in this instance - anticipated is possibly the least interesting of threats for Haneke; you could argue that it is terrifying because there is no escape from it, but compared to a life trapped inside an atrophied body suffering chronic, excruciating pain it becomes more romanticized than ever. His various incarnations of Anne and Georges Laurent, invariably educated and well-off, have had their comfortable existences abruptly shaken up, either by direct retroaction of privilege or threatening circumstances beyond their control. To have this Anne and Georges facing a natural, albeit debilitating, death together is a strangely uncharacteristic narrative release that frees the couple to resign themselves the kind of fate his characters are typically denied, free of any real dread. Even Anne flipping through a book of family photos doesn't stir any real feeling of loss - they don't have to face past regrets or deal with the outside world, all they have to do is lock themselves away and wait for death to come. Literally the worst Anne can do is simply die.

The rest of the film is dedicated to a favorite theme of the director's: his characters' withdraw - in the past Haneke has insisted on the word "glaciation" - from society. Although I don't remember them having a TV, a prop as familiar to Haneke's contemporary films as a rifle in a Peckinpah movie, Anne and Georges commit the remainder of their time together to complete isolation within their spacious apartment, to the languish and humiliation of someone who is losing control of her body and the arduous and mediocre tasks of someone who is taking care of her. It's the distinction of this unspoken daily agenda that they start to fire nurses and refuse visitors, including blithe daughter Isabelle Huppert, who is devastated by their sudden seclusion. The clear comparison here is Haneke's first feature The Seventh Continent, the third act of which chronicles a family's decision to lock the doors of their home and systematically destroy themselves. Three familymembers, the names are the same - like Huppert, the daughter is named Eva - begin to phase themselves out of the bustling world and their repetitive, unrewarding daily tasks until they finally demolish their house and amiably end their lives.

Like Georges in Amour, Continent's Georg is the last one left alive and leaves behind a letter vaguely explaining their suicide. But unlike Amour, we've been given the first two-thirds of the film to see what life was like for these people so that we understand the real tragedy of the film is that death is not a release: the destruction of their possessions is carried out with the same methodical invariability as the crushing monotonous routine that's presumably made them want to "leave." The domestic prison from which the family of The Seventh Continent seek liberation is a fortress to the couple in Amour: the actual invader, if there is one, is tactless daughter Eva, who interrupts her parents' death sanctuary with tedious gossip about her own life and family, reminders of an outside world Anne and Georges have shunned. And while shutting oneself in with a spouse who is suffering horribly may not seem like something anyone would do voluntarily, Haneke presents the couple as being so encapsulated within their space that it would actually be hard to imagine a more tolerable way to cope with the complete loss of one's facilities and experience the suffering of loved one. The indignity of dying is so much more brutal to sit through in something like Frederick Wiseman's Near Death, where hospice patients have to deal with their pain and immobility in a clinical, unfamiliar environment connected by tubes to invasive machines while being watched by strangers. Technically, Haneke's couple are also watched by strangers - the audience - but somehow the director's reliable themes of voyeurism and practice of having the audience's acceptance of unpleasant imagery determine the narrative ("if you think he should smother her with a pillow,press 1!") just aren't as effective when his upper class intellectuals co-inhabit their environment like they're sharing a big cuddly blanket.

Again, this might seem an odd way to contextualize a scenario where one character is in constant, grueling pain while the partner is powerless to do anything: all I know is the same set-up was more harrowing and involving in Funny Games with the couple struggling to support each other in the immediate wake of their son's murder. That also played out in the couple's home, but the invasion there was so complete that it had become a desolate, unpredictable environment for them; in Seventh Continent, the family obliterate anything to identify the house as theirs; in Amour, the absence of Anne doesn't make the apartment seem any less habitable, or welcoming, as it did when she and her husband first entered it. Alienation for these two has resulted in an agreeable stasis. Death has come and gone and left everything more or less the same: it's all Amour, no Hiroshima.

Of course, this impression is substantiated by the unforgivable fantasy ending in which Anne's ghost leads Georges out of the apartment, presumably to his own death. "See, nothing's changed - no matter how much they've suffered, they love each other so much they're together in the afterlife!" may fly in Amour's Oscar competitor Les Miserables (the exact same ending, only with singing) but here the sentiment is inexcusable. If anything, shouldn't the consequence of Georges' action be that he's left alone in what is now a joyless and cold apartment? There would be sufficient argument that Georges' motive for mercy-killing his wife is selfish, that maybe he's given up, he's tired of caring for her,*** he's suffocating in this space (which would at least excuse the symbolism of him exiting the apartment at the end of the film) were it not clear that he does it out of "love," to end her agony, presumably the same reason the Chief smothered McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, an Oscar winner 37 years ago. That his motive is to end her agony is emphatically clear, if not from the film's title alone then from an earlier scene where Anne directly requests that Georges not allow her to continue in her deteriorating state: what would really be selfish would be for him to allow her to go on living like this. Anne's refusal to medicate or be taken to the hospital arethemselves suicidal intentions which negate any kind of "moral shock," in the words of Richard Brody, of Georges' final decision.

I guess Haneke's critics would attack it that way, claiming the title to be ironic ("deployed with a perfidious smirk," according to Slant Magaine) and suggesting that love has no place within Haneke's "retentive realism." I don't agree with reviews that say the characters display no love for each other: that's clearly not the case - if they aren't exchanging butterfly kisses every five minutes it's just because they've been together for years and this is how old married people act. One only has to look at the Jean-Louis Trintignant version of the poster to see the concern on his face for the woman he loves; he loves her so much that, after she's gone, he imagines her ghost leading him away! Love clearly exists in the movie - the problem is that it's a love story of deplorable cliché, like a Ghost or a Lake House. Even Sarah Polley's Away from Her,**** in which a man is forced to deal with the woman he's lived with and adored his entire life gradually fading away as Alzheimer's consumes her was, for all its sentiment, a solid debut that hinted at thoughtfulness and knowledge beyond its twentysomething director's years. Based on that, it was easy to forgive that movie's uncomplicated conclusion "loving somebody is knowing when to support them and when to set them free," but for this film, with these scenes, to come so late in Haneke's career following one of his best and most complicated masterpieces is a confounding travesty. Can you imagine any of his previous characters saying something like "C'est beau, la vie" without a trace of bitterness or incongruity? If Haneke really has nothing to say beyond "these two loved each other and now they gotta go, which is a bummer"

I can't even figure why this particular story appealed to him. Needless to say, he's never employeda verse-chorus-verse method of storytelling, and while the film's narrative simplicity isn't a problem its unambiguous conclusions make the melodramatic manipulations***** a lot less tolerable. There's no question as to why Georges does what he does - everything leading up to that moment supports it - which provides the film the kind of moral judgment Haneke has spoken out against his entire career. To make it even more baffling, Haneke has stated in interviews that it was coming up with this ending that helped him finally piece the rest of the film together, as if that's what the entire venture rested upon! There's no clear answer as to why the family kill themselves in Seventh Continent, or why Huppert stabs herself at the end of Piano Teacher, or who set the barn on fire in The White Ribbon. Why Georges euthanizes Anne could not be more clear-cut: love! He did it out of love! And the movie lacks something beyond the "love is all you need" philosophy to set it apart from, say, The Impossible.

It may seem sadistic of me to claim the characters of Amour don't really suffer (I guess I'm a typical Michael Haneke fan right Haneke haters, I just need my torture porn fix) but I hope it's clear I'm not referring to the brutalizing pain and debasing paralysis Anne goes through over the course of two hours. That Anne's experience is something awful and difficult to watch goes without saying (although it's not nearly disturbing enough, especially comparedto most of the director's other films, to warrant critics' precautions claiming it to be a "cinematic boot camp" to endure), it's just that the characters so quickly and successfully cocoon themselves within a protective environment free of external concerns that the transformation of their warm apartment into a cold tomb never feels calamitous. They die as they lived, together in a familiar place.

Also, without taking anything away from the unquestionably great performances by Trintignant and Riva(and solid support by Huppert, albeit in an unrewarding role), I think Haneke may have had difficulty detaching his esteem for the two actors from the material, to the point that he's really incapable of running them through the gauntlet. The two performers are icons who've lost none of their cinematic weight in their old age, each as meticulously appointed as their ideal surroundings and sure of themselves as Haneke's expert direction of their scenes. I've never even thought to complain that Haneke's stringent camerawork took anything away from the narrative of his films, but in Amour it contributes to the conflicting sense that everything is perfect, that no flaw could be found with the production of the movie or within the world of the film itself. Including his stars, and the result is that scenes such as Anne's "dehumanizing" shower don't come off as horrific as they should, because Emmanuelle Riva just happens to be the most beautiful 85-year-old woman in the world (I have to wonder if this would have been an issue had Haneke cast his original choice, Annie Girardot, no less a cinematic icon but a more physically conventional old person).

So I don't doubt Haneke's empathy for a second - if anything, he cares too much about these actors and their characters. That the only affliction placed on these character's heads is that, no matter how impressive their lives, how talented they are, how happy they've been, how comfortable they are and how much they've loved each other, all this wonderfulfulfillment should come to an end in pain and death doesn't amount to much more than "dying = sad." Just as death is often a release, for Haneke beauty and perfection are typically overwhelming; Erika in The Piano Teacher can't escape the oppressive precision of music, to the point of punishing herself for her own fallibility and flawed humanity, which she can only rip herself away from by stabbing herself in the midst of the majestic sound coming from the music hall in that movie's final shot. Having reached the end of her tolerance for a slow death, Anne switches off her student's CD, shutting herself off from the pleasure of music forever - despite being a music teacher like Erika, denying herself its unbearable, inescapable beauty is as simple as hitting the "stop" button. She's resigned herself to her fate by dispassionately cutting out the one thing in the world that most connects her to it, something even the family of Seventh Continent couldn't do, gaping blankly at Celine Dion power-ballading on TV during the peaceful downtime between the demolishing of their house and their horrible deaths: the television stays on, the flickering light of incessant snow showering the three bodies. The familiar shouldn't be so casually shed; it shouldn't be so easy for the characters of Amour to depart their lives, and with such immaculate precision that the disorder of the film's prelude and dread of its first scenes don't even seem like they're from the same movie.

The reason I've been so hesitant to write negatively about Amour is that I don't want to seem suddenly down on Haneke, especially since his detractors are using the film to accuse him of the same old stuff, of punishing the audience with his clinical approach and his "repellent" intention to, in the words of Brody, "make viewers complicit with morally dubious deeds while keeping his own hands resolutely clean." It's absurd to suggest that, despite his typical detachment, Haneke emphasizes any less with Anne and Georges (it's easy to forget he's only 12-15 years younger than his stars) than the family from Seventh Continent and doesn't acknowledge the tragedy of their situation. But whereas his first feature deals with something too unfathomable to try and access on an emotional level, Amour begs for compassion. Weirdly, most criticisms of the film haven't been based on it being overly sentimental even though champions of the film have welcomed an allegedly warmer, cuddlier Haneke, one who lifted the "glass pane" between himself and his subjects. Obviously Haneke has himself become more merciful: why else would the pigeon in Amour be spared when the fish in The Seventh Continent, the pig in Benny's Video, the dog in Funny Games, the cows in Code Unknown, the horses in Time of the Wolf and the bird in The White Ribbon met with such grim fates? Not that I'm demanding columbidicde- I've never agreed with the label of Haneke as a "bad boy" or "enfant terrible" because he's not an empty provocateur; if I was looking specifically for that kind of thing, I'd approve of Georges' J-horror style nightmare sequence that seems to exist only to placate anyone expecting the purported excess fault-finders have pointed to in the past. I wasn't expecting confrontational subject matter, I was expecting something with substance.

In fact I think his critics give him too much creditby accusing him of a hidden agenda: Haneke himself told the New York Times, "If I’m making a film about love, then necessarily it’s going to be more tender than if I'm making a film with a representation of violence in the media" (in the same article, he expressed an impatience with audiences that may or may not explain Amour's flatness and lack of ambiguity.) Honestly, my problem really wouldn't be the film's sentimentality - if Michael Haneke wanted to try a little tenderness that's his business - but come on, he walks away with her ghost. Most receptions of the film seem to think that since Anne isn't played by a noble Susan Sarandon and doesn't pass away gently to a commiserative Michael Gore composition it avoids clichés, but even a depiction of the degrading stages of dying is mired by well-worn banalities. I also hope I don't come off as a gerontophobe or an agist, Amour being a better "old people" movie than Cocoon or *batteries not included (note: that asterisk doesn't lead anywhere, that's just the title of the movie.) And finally I didn't want people to think I'm disapproving of Amour because of its overwhelming critical response and multiple Oscar nods - the older I get, the less any of that means to me. But as I get older I do require a little more than spoon-fed answers that I've always thought a filmmaker like Michael Haneke would never depreciate himself to entertain. Amour is a film as simple as my favorite movie of 2012 is convoluted, although at the same time it's not exactly an understated film. Its ideas are as monumental as they are monumentally insignificant, finding no new angle on the themes of aging, loving and dying. Anne and Georges age, love and die and there you have it - would it not have been more interesting to explore the release that's not afforded its elderly characters, along the lines of Make Way for Tomorrow? Look, I'm not here to demand what the movie should have been, even if Haneke already explored themes of marriage, devotion and euthanasia in Fräulein, the last TV movie he made before Seventh Continent. I don't mind him returning to the well, he just better come back with more than a bucket full of water.

So I didn't love Amour, but I'd be hesitant to say it's a bad movie. It's as good as this very standard kind of story could possibly be, it's just a shame Haneke couldn't find a way to do more with it. Nothing is neglected, but it's all in service of nothing. There are hints of Haneke greatness. For one thing he reminded me, as he did with Funny Games and Time of the Wolf, that films set largely in one interior don't feel like plays when they're well directed. The stuff with Georges trying to capture the pigeon is great: I can't remember a moment from a recent movie that better represents the clumsy elegance of frailty. Trintignant is so good in these scenes it's easy to dismiss obnoxious claims that the pigeon must be some sort of a symbol for mercy or release or god or the soul or whatever; if anything, it's as perfect an embodiment of Haneke's portrait of a dull, unhurried old life as Herzog's dancing chicken is for life's hypnotic, chaotic entrapment. In fact the pigeon - unhurried, unambitious, largely unobtrusive - is the closest thing the movie has to what I call the "Haneke Totoro" (his idle passers-by not embroiled in the events of the film that nevertheless represent some kind of hopeful transcendence such as the river boat in Seventh Continent and the seemingly unmanned train in Time of the Wolf.) The best thing I can say about finally categorizing Amour as an official letdown is that I can now free myself to write about other films I saw in Toronto, the good and the bad (no not you, Aftershock), which I'll be doing over the next few weeks (although they'll be much shorter and hopefully without this amount of inner conflict.)

UP NEXT: Like Someone in Love


* I'm excluding his TV adaptation of The Castle and the U.S. Funny Games: not because those movies aren't worthwhile, only because they always feel like weird detractors from the rest of his filmography. (I do feel guilty relegating the U.S. Funny Games to a footnote in his career, and hope to revisit and reappraise it soon.)

** This was my favorite part of the film, a precursor to unbalance that reminded me of the rats in the attic before things start to get really weird in The Exorcist. Like Friedkin's movie, nothing that follows is anywhere near as interesting as these early portents to unrest.

*** This interpretation seems meritless beyond the fact that, when she spits up water he's trying to get her to drink, Georges slaps her. It should be obvious to anyone who's ever had to care for a loved one in such a weakened state that frustrations like these are natural and not in any way indicative of homicidal intentions. Believe me, this dead end is the only loophole anyone hoping for a more complicated reading of the movie is going to get (Senses of Cinema's article on Amour runs with it) but I'm here to tell you that if you place that theory on water it's going to sink right to the bottom.

**** In a recent interview, Haneke said he saw "a Canadian film about a somewhat similar case" which I thought must have been Away from Her, until he clarifies, "It was a film about a man who falls ill, it becomes a drama for his family, and finally he kills himself in the bathtub and his wife doesn't save him." I'm not sure which movie he's talking about.

***** Think of the famous scene from Code Unknown where Juliette Binoche appears to be watching her son about to fall to his death while she wades helplessly in a swimming pool that turns out to be a film her character is acting in. That moment is heart-stopping, even if Haneke cuts away from it with a giddy "see how easy it is to get a rise from the audience?"





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