Movie Reviews - 2012 postsSunday May 12, 2013
Movie Review: Renoir (2012)
Leave it to a great painter like Pierre-Auguste Renoir to make my father look good. Whatever ways my father embarrassed me when I was growing up, he never described my girlfriend’s tits in exquisite, loving detail the way that Pierre-Auguste (Michel Bouquet) does to his son, Jean (Vincent Rottiers), two-thirds of the way into Gilles Bourdos’ slow, painterly film, “Renoir.”
“Titian would have worshipped her,” Pierre-Auguste says. “Flesh! That’s all that matters! In art and in life!” And, weary in his old age, and suffering from decades of rheumatoid arthritis: “I’d give my right arm for her tits.”
The tits in question belong to Andrée Heuschling (Christa Theret), model and muse to Auguste in art, and instigator and muse to Jean in his film career. Muse and instigator for writer-director Bourdos as well.
“I made the film for Andree Heuschling,” Bourdos told The Los Angeles Times earlier this year. “She is someone who was the link—the junction between the world of painting and the world of cinema, and between the world of Renoir the father and Renoir the son. I think by using her as a focal point, it enabled me to enter the world of these men.”
That’s a great idea, and the movie is beautiful to look at, and there are moments that resonate. But the movie itself doesn’t resonate.
It opens in 1915 along the Cote d’Azur. It’s peaceful but, as Andrée bikes along a country road, there are signs of less-peaceful events taking place elsewhere. Up in the trees Andrée spots a Hun hung in effigy. As the movie progresses the war gets closer. We see injured soldiers by the side of the road. The Renoir estate will be turned into a boarding house for officers. And one soldier will return home.
Andrée, on this day, is simply biking to the Renoir estate to ask after a job as model to the famous painter. She claims Renoir’s wife sent her but a disgruntled angry boy, in a sleeveless shirt and carrying a stick as a weapon, informs her Renoir’s wife is dead. He calls her a liar and runs away. This is Coco (Thomas Doret, “The Kid with a Bike”), Renoir’s third and last son, who will remain angry and disgruntled throughout the movie; but the source of his anger is never fully explained, nor, for that matter, much noticed by others. Is it too much, being the son of Renoir? (At one points, he tosses dark blue pigment over André’s naked body while she dozes on a chaise lounge.) Is it too much, as an adolescent boy, hanging around all of these beautiful naked women? (“Show me your tits,” he says, at another point, to Andrée. Is he still angry over the death of his mother, or the dismissal of his father’s previous muse/model, Gabrielle (Romane Bohringer)? Coco is intriguing but a secondary character.
Despite the lies about Renoir’s wife, if they are lies, Andrée gets the job but seems remarkably unimpressed by her surroundings. She’s upset Renoir is painting apples rather than her. She wants more money. Renoir is amused, enchanted. That night, sleeping, dreaming, he thanks his dead wife for sending him Andrée. “Her skin drinks in the light,” he says.
Andrée first approached the Renoir estate filmed from behind, as does Jean, on crutches, returning from the war. His return is cause for celebration, for both father and help, and for us, too, to further along the story, but the story doesn’t get much further. Renoir continues to paint, his son continues to help, Jean and Andrée eventually fall in love, or into mutually convenient lust, during which Andrée pushes the young man, who had considered a career painting ceramics, toward film, the medium with which he will become an artist himself (“La grand illusion,” “La règle du jeu,” “La bete humaine”).
But we only get suggestions of this later life. Here? Jean heals, and, against the wishes of both his father and Andrée, returns to war, this time in the Air Force. His father, wheelchair bound, stands to hug him goodbye. The movie, like Pierre-Auguste, doesn’t make it into the 1920s. The rest is afterword.
Moments stand out.
There’s a great shot of the artist dipping his brush in water while the paint swirls slowly down in an orange cloud. I also liked a picnic along the river, during which we see what Renoir is painting, in close-up, and then the camera pans left to what he is painting. It’s all blurry and shadows. The portrait of the artist as an old man with feeble eyesight. “All my life,” he tells Jean, “I got caught up in the complications. Today, I simplify matters.” When Jean suggests rest rather than more painting, his father objects. “I have progress to make!” When his doctor asks what he’ll do when he can no longer hold the paintbrush he responds, “I’ll paint with my dick.”
The old man is driven, as is the young woman, who talks of seizing every chance life offers. But is she too modern? Her body type is right for the period, and for Renoir (veering, as much as modern movies allow, toward the zaftig), but her sauciness, and her look, feel closer to this era. Bourdos may have made the movie for her but he also made her a pain. When Jean, in the beginning of their relationship, finds her flirting with another soldier, he sends her to the kitchen to remind her of her status, and there she struggles uselessly. She demands food, berates the staff, throws Renoir-etched dishes on the floor. When in the middle of their relationship, Jean informs her he’s re-enlisted, she abandons the estate and returns to prostitution. It’s up to Jean to retrieve her.
Would we have been better served seeing how the young Renoir entered the film industry with Andrée, his actress-wife, whom he wanted to make a star and didn’t? Why did he only become a true artist after his separation from her in 1931? Maybe she was his last connection to his father, and he needed to kill his father completely before becoming truly, artistically, himself?
Is that Andrée’s tragedy: serving only as muse to great men? Or is that enough? Most of us have done much, much less.
There’s a great story in here somewhere but it’s not here.
Movie Review: No (2012)
What does the title refer to?
That should be a no-brainer. In 1988, international pressure led the Chilean leader, Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who had come to power in a CIA-backed coup in 1973, to agree to hold a plebiscite, on Oct. 5, on whether or not he should remain in power. Vote YES for Pinochet, vote NO and real elections follow.
René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) is a former exile, the son of a leftist and ex-husband of a leftist, who now works in advertising, and who agrees to advise the NO campaign.
For the 30 days leading up to the vote, both sides, YES and NO, are given 15 minutes to make their case each night on state-run television, and most of the NO folks, including Patricio Alywin, who will become the first president of Chile after Pinochet, want to focus on Pinochet’s past crimes: the hundreds of thousands exiled; the tens of thousands tortured; the thousands executed and disappeared. Saavedra sees this and says “Is that all?” He says, “This … this doesn’t sell.” So he and his team set about crafting a product that might win the election. They create a campaign that is sometimes serious, sometimes humorous, and almost always about the happiness that a true democracy will bring. Because, he asks, what’s happier than happiness? Nada, he answers.
“This is the true story,” the international trailer tells us, “of a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution!”
So it’s obvious what “No” refers to. It refers to the moment when a people told a dictator, “No!”
But might it also be referring to René Saavedra? Is the movie actually saying “No!” to its hero?
What’s happier than happiness?
We first see René, in the movie’s old-school video format, making a pitch to the makers of a cola, “Free,” which involves MTVish dancing girls and mimes and silly stuff. “What you’re going to see now is in line with the current social context,” he says. It’s a sentence he will repeat twice more in the movie.
In the middle of this meeting he gets a visitor: José Tomás Urrutia (Luis Gnecco). “The communist?” he’s asked. “Do you know him?” He shrugs it off but is clearly uncomfortable, or at least annoyed, by the presence of Urrutia. Maybe he doesn’t like having a pitch interrupted? But then Urrutia makes a pitch to him: Would he help with the NO campaign? René gives it a moment and then says, “No.”
What changes his mind? We’re not quite sure. After work, he visits the police station, where Veronica (Antonia Zegers), his ex-wife, is being jailed after another political protest. He watches as she gets punched in the face by the cops. Is that what changes his mind? That’s what we assume. But what happens next? He heads home to make dinner for his son, Simon (Pascal Montero), and to work on a campaign for a microwave oven. The wife, who lives elsewhere, comes home later, as he’s taking the boy to bed. They talk in muffled tones, she asks to kiss Simon, and as she leans close, René almost breathes her in. You can see pain of lost love on his face. Look closely. It’s one of the last times you’ll get any emotion out of René.
The NO campaign comes together bit by bit. Initially, there’s an almost “Barton Fink”-like joke, since René’s first pitch is remarkably similar to his pitch for Free Cola. It’s as if he has just one pitch in him. But he’s more adaptable than that. At one point he’s conversing with his mentor, who arrives with the CIA-like phrase, “I’m not here,” and they’re talking in muffled tones, trying to suss out the answer. How do you win this? What sells? “We need to have a product that is sufficiently attractive,” they say. They ask René’s maid why she’s on the YES side. She shrugs. I’m fine, she says. My kids are fine, she says. So how do you combat “fine”? Not with fear. With happiness.
Someone suggests folk songs? He counters with jingles. Veronica tells him his campaign is a joke? He changes the subject. The opposition talks up the wealth of the supposedly impoverished characters in the NO campaign? He brushes it aside. He knows it doesn’t matter. He tells his people to add more jokes. He makes the campaign fun and dazzling.
Sure, he gets pressured by Pinochet’s goons. Graffiti is spraypainted on his home and car. His housekeeper is threatened by soldiers on the streets. The ad team is watched, followed. He receives a late-night phone call. “How are you, René? How is Simon? I like your train.” Click.
His boss, Lucho Guzmán (Alfredo Castro), is working on the YES campaign, and the two square off numerous times. Guzman tells government ministers, “We’re going to fuck them up,” and he says it to René, too. René says it back. Guzman implies he’ll fire him and René dares him. “Go ahead, fire me,” he says. The tension between the two men feels personal and political but it’s neither. We’re surprised, for example, when halfway through the movie René is still working for Guzman. He’s working for him in the end as well. So if it’s not personal or political, what is it?
It’s competition. They both want to win. Maybe that’s all René ever wanted.
The tension between form and content
From the beginning, most of those involved in the NO campaign think the entire referendum is a sham, since, no matter the vote, Pinochet won’t let go of power. We assume the opposite, since the movie has been made. But we’re still on the edge of our seats.
The key event, really, occurs election night, Oct. 5, when the generals of the various armed forces don’t back Pinochet’s attempt to rig the election. They keep it fair. That’s really how that dictatorship crumbles. The NO campaign helped, certainly, but without the generals the rigged vote would’ve simply been one more lie during 15 years of lies.
Instead, NO wins: 55 to 45 percent. For a moment, they’re all stunned. Then they begin to celebrate. And as politicians make speeches and people shout and dance and sing, René picks up Simon and weaves his way through the crowds. At one point his eyes get a little misty. Does he smile? I don’t recall. Is he happy? One assumes so but we have no evidence. Does he celebrate with everyone? With anyone? No. He just walks through the crowd, holds onto his son, and thinks. It’s what he’s been doing for the entire movie, really. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a lead character think so much onscreen.
This is the movie’s high point but it doesn’t end here. It continues. We watch René, on his skateboard again, on his way to work again, where he makes a pitch to a soap opera using the same language he used before: “the current social context,” etc. And that’s our end.
What’s changed from the beginning of the movie? Nada. Todo y nada. So why end like this? Why focus on René? Why make him the way he is? Without seeming motivation? Without seeming emotion? Why film the movie in video with its ugly, boxy (1.33:1) aspect ratio?
Throughout, I felt a tension between the movie’s form and its content. What René pitches, what he sells, is the opposite of what writer-director Pablo Larraín is saying and selling.
“No” is an art flick but its hero is selling Hollywood endings. He’s selling glamour even though he’s filmed in unglamorous locations using unglamorous video. The movie has a right to be happy—“a marketing campaign that sparked a revolution!”—but it doesn’t indulge in its happiness. It’s dour. It’s gray. René would not approve. He would look at the movie and say, “Is that all?” He would look at Larraín and say, “This … this doesn’t sell.”
So what is Pablo Larraín selling?
The current social context
In 1985, cultural critic Neil Postman wrote “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” in which he argued that of the two dystopian novels of the first half of the 20th century, George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” it was the latter, not the former, that is the more accurate depiction of the modern western world. Our problem isn’t totalitarianism but capitalism. We don’t suffer from a lack of choices but an abundance of them. We haven’t become a captive culture but a trivial one. We aren’t controlled by the threat of pain but by the promise of pleasure. We keep voting for happiness.
Pablo Larraín’s “No” is about the return of democracy to Chile, and that’s a glorious event, but the movie doesn’t indulge in the glory. It recognizes that even as one tyrant is overthrown, a lesser tyrant emerges. Chile loses “1984” and gains “Brave New World.” It says “No” to Pinochet. But saying “No” to René? Well, why would we even do that? Why would we say “No” to the promise of happiness?
“What you’re going to see now,” René says at the beginning of the movie, “is in line with the current social context.” Yes. Yes, it is.
Movie Review: On the Road (2012)
Near the beginning of “On the Road,” the adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s seminal 1957 novel by screenwriter Jose Rivera and director Walter Salles, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is saying good-bye to friends Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) and Dean Moriarity (Garrett Hedlund), who are leaving New York for Denver, and the three gather in a photobooth for a picture. Back then, apparently, you only got one photo, not four, so Dean takes out a razor blade and cuts the picture in half. Meaning he cuts Sal in half. Then he gives Sal the half with his picture on it (plus half of Sal) and keeps the half with Carlo (plus half of Sal).
You could say this represents the great bifurcation of Sal Paradise, who is trapped between the writing life, as represented by Carlo (read: Allen Ginsberg), and the wild, mad life on the road, as represented by Dean (Neal Cassady), and only much later, near the end of the movie, when the two halves are brought together again, does Sal see a way out of his dilemma. He joins the Dean and Carlo halves of his soul by taping together many hundreds of 8x11 pieces of paper until he has a whole roll; then he just cuts loose on the keyboard. In mad-to-live, mad-to-talk bursts, he reproduces their life on the road on paper. Which is supposedly how Kerouac created his masterpiece.
I was never a fan, by the way.
The white boy looks at the black boy looking at the white boy
I read “On the Road” for the first and only time in my early 20s, which is when you’re supposed to read it and fall in love with it, but I didn’t. I was a careful kid. Too careful, really, but I knew what I liked. I liked Salinger, Roth, Doctorow, and Irving, who wrote beautifully about things that mattered. Kerouac, it seemed to me, didn’t write beautifully about things that didn’t matter. The adventures he described were episodic and dull. His voice felt like someone trying to push a Volkswagen up to 150 mph. I found the characters Sal and Dean and Carlo, based upon Kerouac and his friends, frenetic and pretentious.
I wasn’t the only one.
In the essay, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” from the collection “Nobody Knows My Name,” James Baldwin takes Kerouac apart. First he quotes him at length:
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I so drearily was, a “white man” disillusioned. All my life I had white ambitions. … I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes; soft voices were there, occasionally the dusky knee of some mysterious sensuous gal; and dark faces of the men behind rose arbors. Little children sat like sages in ancient rocking chairs.
Then he lets him have it, keying in on one of Kerouac’s favorite words:
Now, this is absolute nonsense, of course, objectively considered, and offensive nonsense at that: I would hate to be in Kerouac’s shoes if he should ever be mad enough to read this aloud from the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
Salles’ movie, however, is quite good. Yes, it’s still episodic, and, yes, it merely builds toward dissolution—toward that moment when young friends are pulled in different directions, and they give up the mad life, or the chance at the mad life, and instead of seeing jazz in sweaty Negro clubs they see it at Carnegie Hall wearing suits and ties. But then the movie pushes past all that toward creation, Sal’s creation, or recreation, his melding of the two halves of his soul so he can write it all down. I like that.
We also lose, for the most part, Kerouac’s voice. This is generally a negative for movies adapting great works of literature. Who’d want to give up Fitzgerald’s voice in “The Great Gatsby,” Nabokov’s in “Lolita,” Proust’s or Joyce’s anywhere? But with Kerouac it’s a plus. I don’t have to hear him pushing his Volkswagen up to 150. I don’t have to hear him romanticize about dusky knees and lives he knows nothing about. Salles edits him. He makes Sal seem less of an asshole.
What they do with it
Watching Salles’ movie, I got a real sense of the narrow niche, in time and place, that allowed this story to occur. At one point they hop a train and I thought, “Fifteen years earlier, they would’ve been hobos in the Depression.” They rock out to Negro jazz and scat and I thought, “Ten years later, would it be rock n’ roll? And, if so, could they see themselves on the stage in a way they don’t now? Would they form a band, ‘The Beat Generation,’ with their Top 40 hit, ‘Mad to Live, Mad to Love’?” Their story happened the way it happened because it was after the Depression and after the war, but before the country was unified by television and the Interstate Highway Act of 1956.
Was the madness here a consequence of the war? A consequence of the bomb? Sal in the novel is ex-GI but I don’t think we get much war talk in the movie. One can assume these were kids raised during great economic dislocation, who, in adolescence, were geared toward war, propagandized daily, but who suddenly found themselves at the height of their energy and strength with no World War and no Depression. The rest of the world was licking its wounds, rebuilding from the rubble, but America was fairly untouched and affluent, and what did you do with that?
This is what Dean and Sal and company do with that:
- Get high
- Go to jazz clubs
- Drive fast
- Have lots of sex with lots of partners
- Have pseudo-intellectual conversations
They’re the model for every annoying undergraduate since.
They crisscross the country. At first, it’s Sal, alone, with his thumb, and he hangs with Carlo and Dean in Denver, then continues onto California, where he hooks up with Terry (Alice Braga, niece of Sonia), who is part of a migrant-worker community there. Everyone picks cotton, gets their dismal pay, but only Sal pauses before The Man with a look on his face. He can afford to. In voiceover he tells us, “I could feel the pull from my life calling me back.” He has that option. He gets to play at being a migrant worker and then leave. The others don’t. Hence Baldwin’s anger, above.
All of the characters love Dean. He’s handsome and vibrant and sexual. He wants, wants, wants, but without consequence, and there are always consequences. He wants the freedom to flit, but flitting means abandonment. It means betrayal. He’s a con man. I like when he gets the girl for Sal, Rita (Kaniehtiio Horn), and, with Carlo, the four of them are partying and drinking and dancing, and Rita says, “Bless me, Father, for I will sin.” Then we hear moaning from the bedroom, and the camera slowly pans left, to Carlo and … wait for it … Sal, dazed on the couch, where Sal wonders aloud: Wasn’t the girl for me? But all the girls are Dean’s.
The main girl is Marylou (Kristen Stewart), who is supposed to be 16, but Stewart hardly looks it. There’s also Camille (Kirsten Dunst), Dean’s wife in San Francisco. They have a baby, another on the way, when Sal shows up and Dean asks to go out with him by asking Camille along, too, knowing she can’t. She calls him on it but off he goes. When he returns at dawn, she demands he leave. There’s a great look on her face, panic as she gets what she wants, which isn’t what she wants. She wants him to stay, to beg her to stay, but that’s not him. So he leaves her there with one baby and another on the way. How bad must you be when William Burroughs (Old Bull Lee, played by Viggo Mortensen) calls you irresponsible?
The final abandonment is of Sal, with dysentery, in Mexico.
Marylou at 81
So “On the Road,” the movie, is better than “On the Road,” the book. It actually makes all the sex and drugs and travel look pretty bleak. The cast is good, and Hedlund, he of the deep voice, is a future star.
As I was writing this, though, I kept wondering about Marylou. If she was 16 in 1947 she’d be 81 now. Does she think back on those days? Does she remember sitting between two guys in the front seat of a ’49 Hudson shooting through Arizona, all three of them naked, and jacking them both off at the same time? What smile flits across her creased face then?
That’s the distance that matters to me. That’s the road the matters. We’re all on it.
Movie Review: Tabu (2012)
From the first frame I felt trapped. I watched the safari adventurer standing there in his pith helmet and moustache, slouched, torpid, and looking nothing like a safari adventurer, as Africans paraded past carrying equipiment on poles, with the jungle around him, what’s supposed to be the heart of the dark continent, looking more like the sparse woods near your home, the clumps of trees and wild grass next to Minnehaha Creek in south Minneapolis, for example; and it was all so flimsy, so devoid of life, and filmed in black-and-white with an old timey aspect ratio (1:37: 1), that I merely thought one thought: “Oh no.”
I might have left right then but I was with friends, whom I’d dragged to this. I’d heard good things. Some critics put “Tabu” in their top 10 for 2012. A few made it their No. 1 movie of the year. But from the first frame I feared their idea of what’s art, or storytelling, or truth or beauty, wasn’t mine. Not close.
For the rest of the movie I hope my first impression was wrong. I hoped I’d get interested.
It wasn’t. I didn’t.
The opening scenes are from an old movie, a story of lost love and ghosts and crocodiles on the African continent, which Pilar (Teresa Madruga) is watching in modern-day Lisbon. She’s 60s, a good, God-fearing woman living alone in an apartment. Her neighbor is Aurora (Laura Soveral), older and with a hint of faded glamour, but beginning to lose it. We get an interesting scene in a casino where Aurora talks of a dream set in Africa, with a husband with hairy arms pretending to be a monkey, and the background keeps shifting in the telling. Writer-director Miguel Gomes does more interesting things with that background than he does with anyone in the foreground for the rest of the movie.
“Tabu” is split in two parts. The first deals with a bit of Pilar’s life, including a Polish exchange student who abandons her on sight, and a would-be artist who attempts to romance her. But mostly she gets involved in the decline and fall and eventual death of Aurora. On her deathbed, Aurora gives Pilar a name, Ventura (Henrique Espírito Santo), who is the key to the second part of the story, the earlier part of the story, set in the days of Portugese colonialism in the shadow of the fictitious Mt. Tabu in Africa. He tells it to Pilar and Aurora’s live-in maid, Santa (Isabel Muñoz Cardoso), while we watch. It’s a tale of adultery and searing love. It recalls the line of narration from the pith-helmet movie that opened the film: “You can run as long as you can, and as far as you can, but you cannot escape your heart.”
I like some of this narration. I like some of the photography. But there’s no life here. The faces of the characters are as blank and deadpan as the faces of commuters on a city bus. Remember John Ford’s admonition to film the most interesting thing in the world—a human face? Gomes gives lie to this. He shows the opposite. In his hands, a human face is the least interesting thing in the world.
So why do other critics like “Tabu” so much? Here’s Richard Brody in The New Yorker:
In Gomes’s ingenious vision, the smoothed-out, tamped-down, serenely cultured solitude of the modern city, with its air of constructive purpose in tiny orbits, rests on a dormant volcano of passionate memories packed with adventurous misdeeds, both political and erotic. Filming in suave, charcoal-matte black-and-white, he frames the poignant mini-melodramas of daily life with a calmly analytical yet tenderly un-ironic eye. If today’s neurotic tensions come off as a corrective to past crimes, even a form of repentance, Gomes’s historical reconstruction of corrupted grandeur is as much a personal liberation as a form of civic therapy.
That’s some heavy lifting. Me, I need more life in my films. I need to be able to breathe. In “Tabu,” from the first frame, I felt entombed in something that wasn’t true or beautiful or worth what little time I have left in this existence.
Movie Review: Amour (2012)
Returning from a piano concerto, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) comments to his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) about the scuff marks on the lock to their beautiful high-ceilinged Paris apartment. They’re screwdriver marks. Someone has tried to break in. He dismisses the would-be thieves as amateurs, not professionals, but for the rest of the movie this feeling of imminent invasion and theft never goes away. It always feels like someone or something is about to come through the door because something is. The movie is about the most professional thief of all. The one we can’t keep out. The one who, in the end, takes everything.
If most movies lie to us or ply us with wish-fulfillment fantasies (we are handsome, good and victorious), the movies of German writer-director Michael Haneke do the opposite: they lay bare, in the starkest way, our greatest fears: We are not safe (“Funny Games”), we are not good (“The White Ribbon”), we have no privacy (“Caché”). Plus we have no idea what’s going on (all of the above).
With “Amour,” he focuses on our greatest fear: We are going to die. And death, when it comes, won’t be easy and it won’t be pretty.
Hurts hurts hurts
The above concert, performed by Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), a former student of Anne’s who is now internationally acclaimed, is the first and last time we see Georges and Anne outside their apartment. The next morning during breakfast, in the midst of casual conversation, Anne suddenly stops talking and stares into space. Georges can’t get a reaction out of her. She’s upright but not there. He puts a towel to her face and neck. He returns to the bedroom to change out of his pajamas to get help. Then he hears the water in the kitchen stop running. It’s Anne. She’s back but doesn’t remember being gone.
We get medical terminology. Something stopping the flow of blood somewhere. People arrive, help out, including Georges and Anna’s daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), and the concierge and her husband, and then workmen installing a medical bed. When we next see Anne she’s in a wheelchair. She’s having trouble moving. A stroke? Is it just her right side? Yes and yes. “Please, never take me back to the hospital,” she tells her husband. He promises. “Don’t feel guilty,” she tells him. “I don’t feel guilty,” he responds, confused.
He helps her with her physical therapy. He tells her stories about his youth. He reluctantly goes to the funeral of a friend, Pierre, but, in the reporting, criticizes the event: the eulogy was bad, the music chosen, “Yesterday” by the Beatles, was maudlin and provoked laughter from the young, the urn stood on a stand meant for a coffin. Anne doesn’t want to hear any of this. I suppose Georges is her Michael Haneke, telling her unpalatable truths. “You’re a monster sometimes,” she tells him, “but very kind.” Haneke shows us monsters. The kindness we get here is new.
Anne’s former student, Alexandre, turns up, initially full of himself, and Anne is happy to see him but he’s obviously shocked by Anne’s state. Days later, when he sends along his latest CD, the note talks of “the beautiful and sad moment” of his visit. Anne’s face closes off. During his visit, she’d requested a number, and he’d filled the room with beauty. Now she tells Georges to turn off his CD. His visit, I’m sure, was a high moment for her, and now it’s tarnished by the word “sad.” She doesn’t want pity. She wants to maintain a certain level of dignity. But time keeps slipping in and stealing things.
She wets the bed. Eva visits again, this time with her British husband, Geoff (William Shimell), and by now, Anne, bedridden, can only speak gibberish. Apparently there was a second stroke. She has to wear a diaper. She’s fed mush. Wasn’t it just a few scenes ago where she was eating dinner with her husband in the kitchen? Steak and vegetables? At that time, her world seemed narrowed but now that moment feels full of possibility. One thinks of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych.” The world keeps shrinking and shrinking. Time keeps taking and taking. Anne is Georges’ whole life now. He hires one nurse, then another. The second one is incompetent, obtuse in her cruelty. She brushes Anne’s hair too hard, then forces her to look into mirrors she doesn’t want to look into. Georges fires her. She doesn’t get it. Georges explains. She refuses to see it. She calls Georges names. “You’re a mean old man,” she says. More Beatles.
George tries to feed Anne but she’s obstinate and angry. “If you don’t drink, you will die,” he says. “Do you want that?” She does. He forces water on her. She spits it out and he slaps her. Both are horrified by what they’ve become.
She moans a lot. “Money for concert,” she says at one point, remembering, no doubt, something from childhood. “Hurts, hurts, hurts,” she says more often. He returns to her bedside, pats her hand to calm her, tells her another story. She calms down. Then he grabs a pillow and against her struggles smothers her to death. It’s not just what she wants, it’s what we want, too. Make it fucking end.
What nightmares may come
We actually watch the entire movie waiting for the moment of death. In the beginning, before the concert, we see the police and concierge break down the door to her bedroom, where Anne lies, as if in state, on a bed amid flowers. Her face is slightly shrunken and the men hold handkerchiefs to their noses and open the windows. Otherwise the place is empty. As a result, throughout the film, we’re wondering how it gets to that point. Why does Georges leave her this way? And where does he go?
He drifts. After Anne’s death, he gets flowers. He prepares her. He seals up her bedroom. Pigeons often get into their apartment and he works to shoo them out but now we watch him close the window on one pigeon and trap it with a blanket. We assume the worst (it’s Haneke) but he simply strokes it beneath the blanket. He’s lonely. At least that’s how I read it.
When he leaves the apartment, at Anne’s urging, is that the moment of his own death (she returns to get him) or the moment when delusion trumps reality? Is he dead in the apartment or does he wander the street, perhaps to die there, or to be found and put in a hospital, where he’ll die, amid the tubes and the diapers and the slow closing off of the world? This is kindler, gentler Haneke (that pigeon wouldn’t have survived in “The White Ribbon”), but he still leaves us with questions. He doesn’t round off his ending. It’s as frayed as ever.
In the theater lobby afterwards, with everyone trying to exhale and live again, a woman in her sixties turned to me. “I have two words for that movie,” she said. “Assisted suicide.” I nodded, paused. “I have four words for that movie,” I said. “I need a drink.”
Neither her two words nor my four words relieved the horror. On the walk home I saw a little girl, 5 maybe, skipping in an alleyway between her parents, and wanted to yell at her. “Don’t you know what’s going to HAPPEN?!? The awful fate that awaits you!?! Yes, YOU!” Is this what it’s like being Michael Haneke? How does he sleep? What nightmares does he have? Or does he put them on the screen for the rest of us and sleep like a baby? Many people see me as a cynic, a grump, a curmudgeon before my time; but compared to Haneke I feel like the most wide-eyed Pollyanna that ever skipped the earth.
The dude’s a cold genius, but there’s little warmth and not much beauty in his vision. I think of Bill Cunningham’s line from last year’s documentary: He who seeks beauty will find it. Where is the beauty in Haneke’s vision? Where is the joy? Surely there’s joy. Once in a while?
If this is “Amour,” and I get why it is, please, Michael Haneke, don’t show us “Haine.”