FilmJuice have my review of Michael Haneke’s Palme D’Or and Oscar-winning drama Amour.
Set almost entirely within the walls of a well-appointed Parisian apartment, Amour tells the story of a retired couple named Anne and Georges who are forced to adapt to entirely new ways of being and relating when one of the couple suffers a massive stroke. Unlike many of Haneke’s films, which present themselves as being of a certain genre only to then deconstruct the genre and mock audiences for wanting generic plot resolutions, Amour is a film that is almost entirely free of postmodern cleverness. In fact, the only thing distinguishing Amour from an old-fashioned weepy is its thematic content. This thematic content sat very close to my personal metal as I spent a number of years as my mother’s primary carer and so immediately identified with the changes taking place in Georges’ character:
Much of the film’s drama and tension comes from Georges’ troubled attempts to reinvent himself and his relationships in a way that protects both Anne’s dignity and his own humanity. Sometimes the negative emotions prompt Georges to over-react to relatively minor problems because it is much easier to fire and humiliate a nurse than it is to deal with the feeling that your life is now nothing more than medication, nappy changes and the grim inevitability of death. As Anne’s condition continues to deteriorate, we see Georges attempting to cling to any island of psychological stability he can find. For example, when the couple’s children turn up and express concern over Anne’s condition, Georges seems cold and inflexible to the point of outright insanity but in truth this attitude is entirely self-protective. As Georges points out, the tears and concerns of his children are of no practical use to him because, at the end of the say, he is the one who will be left alone to care for Anne. Better that the children keep their mouths shut than for them to offer the type of false hope that would make it so much harder for Georges to go back to his life as a solitary carer. It is in Georges’ interactions with these islands of stability that we see Haneke’s vision imposing itself upon what would otherwise be quite a traditional weepy.
Usually, one finds oneself praising Haneke for his savagery and visual brilliance but Amour is a surprisingly humane and visually simplistic film. At times, the only difference between this and a TV movie is the lack of melodramatic scoring and even this is present if you allow for the fact that the film continues Haneke’s obsession with the emotional lives of neurotic pianists. Rather than praising Haneke for his ability to be Haneke, I find myself praising him for his compassion and attention to detail as many of the details of this film could have been lifted directly from my own life.
Earlier this year I wrote a post about the lack of diversity in the films considered for the 2012 Cannes Film Festival Palme D’Or. While that post focused principally upon the demographics of the directors considered for the award, I was also concerned by the Cannes-centric feedback loop that appears to be encouraging non-French film directors to begin making films in France. I delve into this idea in a little more depth in my latest feature for FilmJuice entitled French Style – How Economics Turns World Cinema into French Film.
The thrust of my argument is that France has become so good at protecting and encouraging French film that the French film scene is beginning to suck talent from the rest of World Cinema. The most notable examples of this process are the Iranian film director Abbas Kiarostami and the Austrian director Michael Haneke:
By providing ambitious filmmakers with an oasis of financial stability, the French state may also have begun a process of cultural assimilation through which non-French directors surrender their distinct cultural identities in an effort to produce French films for the French marketplace.
Aside from the fact that non-French cinematic voices are beginning to acquire a distinctly Gallic accent, there is also the problem posed by these older established voices crowding out younger home-grown talents. France ensures that a certain number of its cinema screens must show French films but why would a cinema chain choose to show a French film by a director like Mia Hansen-Love and Katell Quillévéré when they can show a film by an award-winning star of world cinema?
To understand the films of Michael Haneke, one must first understand his deep ambivalence towards the themes and techniques of genre film-making. In The Time of The Wolf (2003) it was the post-apocalyptic. In Hidden (2005) it was the mystery. In Funny Games (1997) it was the slasher. All of these films would happily fit within the genre canons that inspired them were it not for Haneke’s almost visceral reaction against the cosily self-indulgent safety of genre.
To go and see a genre film is to arrive at the cinema with a certain set of expectations. The purchase of the ticket is a contract : Scare me. Thrill me. Entertain me. Move me. We know what we want and we happily pay to receive it.
Haneke is a filmmaker who refuses all such contractual relationships. He uses the methods of genre to engineer not the effects that audiences have been conditioned to expect, but rather something different. Something far more subversive. For example, in both versions of Funny Games, the story of a family’s torture and murder allows the filmmaker to challenge his audience’s desire to watch such atrocities. At one point, Haneke allows one of his characters to escape their fate only for the murderer to pick up a remote control and rewind the film in order to foil the escape. Audiences are to be denied the consolations of genre even if it means that the fourth wall must be shattered in the process. The same is true of Hidden. Haneke apes the mystery so effectively that the audience begins to tie itself in knots, picking over clues scattered throughout the narrative as to the identity of the stalker. However, Haneke refuses to resolve this question, leaving instead the methods, motivations and identity of the stalker unanswered. Soon the question changes from “who is doing this to the character?” to “what has the character done to deserve this?”. The main character begins to pick over his past until he eventually uncovers some terrible secret. A secret that might not have caused the film’s goings on but which could plausibly inspire them. This is the whodunit not as a form of palliative reassurance that no crime will go unpunished. Instead Hidden uses the themes and movements of the mystery genre to imply universal guilt, not only in its characters but in its audience. Are you, the film seems to ask, really innocent?
Das Weisse Band – Eine Deutsche Kindergeschichte sees Haneke return to the same hostile and yet pragmatic relationship with genre themes and images to request of us a leap of empathy and understanding.
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