Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Un Temps Decevant

Although I consider myself a decent cinema buff, there are always holes in what I should have seen. Every year that I can remember I have failed to see all the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture; it's a trend that starts with preconceptions and tunes out what might have been (though certainly not always) a good theatrical experience. In 2011 it was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that got the snub (to be fair, most people didn't see it); in 2010 it was 127 Hours and Toy Story 3; in 2009 it was a trio of nominees in The Blind Side, An Education and A Serious Man. I could go on, but honestly it gets a little embarrassing; I'm up to over 100 movies a year and STILL don't see all the "important" ones. That is, until now. With Amour, the Austrian-produced Palm D'or winner by acclaimed director Michael Haneke, I've finally seen the ninth and final Best Picture nominee, and I can sum up the feeling with one simple word:


In fairness, my apathy has little to do with the film's tale; in it, elderly Parisian George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) must adjust his life to care for his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who has suffered a terrible stroke. After surgery to prevent future issues proves to be a failure, George does his best to assist the woman he loves both physically and mentally as she slowly deteriorates due to her condition. With his life falling apart around him, George is committed to making sure that Anne is comfortable until the very end.

There are a few things that make Amour such an important movie, and why it sits atop many people's charts as being among the best 2012 had to offer. One is the above-mentioned tale, which is so far removed from typical Hollywood romances that it's actually a breath of fresh air despite its extremely dreary story. Anyone can write about two lovers meeting (and most screenwriters are paid to do so at one point or another), but rarely are we told of the end of those relations, unless it's the result of divorce or some kind of separation, which usually only results in that couple getting back together. But sketching out the end of a pair that are separating not by their own choice, and putting the emphasis on how much they cannot look forward to being apart, is a heartbreaking concept that many of us cannot imagine, and never want to. A second strength is the claustrophobia of the situation and how that is committed to the screen; with the exception of Amour's opening scenes, every moment takes place in George and Anne's decently-sized apartment, to emphasize Anne's annoyance at being limited to so tiny a world. It's as frustrating for the audience to be stuck in there as well, as there are glimpses of Paris right outside their windows that might as well be a million miles away.

And of course such a focused story needs expert actors to gel the whole experience. Trintignant is an absolute force in front of the camera, showing off a strange mix of outer strength and inner turmoil that is as charismatic as it is powerful. When you consider the fact that less deserving actors have been nominated for big awards this year (that's right, I'm calling out Bradley Cooper and Silver Linings Playbook), the fact that this man has not been more recognized for his movie is a bit of a downer. Of course, while Trintignant is something to be reckoned with, Riva puts him in his place with the kind of performance that MAKES these kind of character-driven dramas work. In what is a truly haunting role, Riva must go from fully-functional to broken over the course of the film, and the differences from scene to scene are heartbreaking to witness in full, as Anne slowly loses all ability to move, speak and think clearly. She clearly earned that Best Actress nod, and if she were to take it from the outstretched (albeit worthy) hands of Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence, I won't argue one whit. The supporting cast is well-balanced with talent, the best being Isabelle Huppert as George and Anne's daughter, who breaks down as her mother's deterioration continues. In all, this is a very, VERY good cast put forth by Haneke.

But what makes Amour so disappointing is that it fails to take advantage of all those strengths to any significant degree. I'm not familiar with Haneke's work, but for every effective moment he captures on camera there are five or six duds that either fail to evoke their intended emotion or are so out of place that they never can be fully explained. Naturally, for the former there might be argument for perspective; if you've ever cared for someone suffering the aftereffects of a stroke and slowly slipping away from the person you know, then Amour might more readily hit home. I've been (VERY) lucky to never witness that, so while I can certainly start to sympathize with the characters, my emotional commitment was little more than slim at best. But the latter is quite a bit less forgivable, as Haneke's untempered directing style combines with some truly godawful film editing to thoroughly bore the audience and any chance of engaging his viewers flies swiftly away. Looking at the Best Director category, I can understand how Ben Zeitlin (for Beasts of the Southern Wild) can beat out Kathryn Bigelow and Ben Affleck for a nomination, but HANEKE? Sorry, I just don't see it.

For almost a year now I've been awaiting Amour, pride of Sundance and reigning king of foreign cinema. I can see how people have gotten so worked up over this tale, which combines a unique story with truly compelling performances. But unless you've experienced the events within firsthand, you won't fully get into the story. Haneke does a piss-poor job of drawing in the uninitiated, and despite a few moments breaking the mold and actually reveling in pure emotion, the rest is much too clinical and fails to live up to the excellent acting work. This might play fine against other international works, but it has no business among the top films of 2012. I went into this expecting to be emotionally devastated; coming out, I took away a general sense of ennui. That is not the stuff of Best Picture nominees.

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