Saturday, May 31, 2014

MOVIE REVIEW: "Amour," or, A Lot Not to Love

This review contains partial spoilers, but who cares?

This site tends to be rather behind the times when it comes to movie reviews.  Heck, I still have on my list to write about the results of the presidential election.  Still, if I can warn anyone away from this movie on DVD, Netflix, Redbox (doesn't seem a likely RedBox candidate, but I'll be damned if it isn't listed on the website), cable download, or even Blockbuster on Demand, I will have performed a public service.

You have probably already read something about this movie.  It was widely praised on release.  It won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and was nominated for Best Picture, Direction (Michael Haneke), Screenplay (Haneke), and Actress in a Leading Role (Emmanuelle Riva).  I don't know why it didn't get a Best Actor nod as well, except that I have never heard anyone, anywhere, try to pronounce "Trintignant." (It's something like tron teen YONT.)  It got a stratospheric 93% rating on the notoriously harsh Rotten Tomatoes.  It won many international competitions in many categories.

A lot of people really, really liked this movie.

The Memsahib liked it.

I do not question the sincerity of the viewers who admired this show or the critics and judges who showered it with praise and prizes.

I just think they're wrong.

Pretty simple plot:  Elderly couple, Ann (Riva) and Georges (Trintignant).  Retired piano teachers, living in a quite large apartment (piano teaching apparently a lucrative profession in France).  She suffers a stroke, then another.  He takes care of her as best he can, but it is difficult.  She is not able to communicate, at least not well or often.  Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert, nice to see her again) comes to visit.  She wants to institutionalize Anne, but Georges wants to honor Anne's wishes to the contrary.  One day, while speaking to her at her bedside, reminiscing in a monologue, he suddenly grabs a pillow and suffocates her.  He then prepares her body to be found in an appealing setting, with flowers and a nice dress, and then commits suicide.

This is only a partial spoiler.  The movie begins with the arrival of firemen and paramedics to break in and find the two of them.  In fact, when I heard the title, and that it was about two elderly people, I assumed that this was going to be a murder-suicide thing because the murder was the "loving" thing to do, and his own suicide was emblematic of his feeling that he could not live with this "love."

My dislike of this movie has nothing to do with any judgment about whether Georges's actions were right or wrong.  My objections focus entirely on the movie.

And I do not object that it was gloomy and tragic.  The plot I describe above is an entirely legitimate frame upon which to hang scenes of interest and discovery.

But this movie was an endless, dreary mess.   The Mem caught me checking my watch a couple of times.

Let me give you the most annoying example.  There is a scene in the movie of a maid vacuuming the carpet.  Vacuum, vacuum, vacuum.  No one else is in the room.  No speaking.  Just vacuuming.  I don't know how long it lasted.  Not long.  But I ask anyone:  What was the point of that scene?  Was it to show the dull, mundane lives that this afflicted couple was leading?  Was it something meant to show the passage of time?  Was there symbolism in the vacuuming?  I absolutely guarantee you that the dull passage of time is something that this movie expresses in spades in almost every scene, and that it is not a show that asks you to guess at what things might mean.

Another:  Georges's preparation for the scene to be found by the police -- selecting her clothes, cutting the flowers, taping up the doors, all in complete silence -- goes on forever.

And Ann and Georges -- even when Ann was entirely possessed of her faculties, and when she wasn't entirely incapacitated -- are not very interesting people.  They don't say anything interesting.  In fact, they're not really a very appealing couple.  They show no pleasure in the company of one another or their daughter.  They are gracious to the only appealing character in the movie, an up-and-coming young pianist whose performance they had admired and who they had invited for a visit.  He disappears, and one wonders how that scene advanced anything, either.  The pianist might as well have been vacuuming.

Things heat up in "Amour"

I don't doubt that this may be an extremely realistic portrait of a couple who find themselves in the circumstances the plot sets for them.   But would you find 127 minutes -- yes, this goes on for over two hours -- of watching apartment occupants sitting, sometimes talking, vacuuming, cutting flowers, walking around, looking out the window, preparing the death scene, a good use of your time?  Much of which is shot, by the way, in frigid high-contrast low-res cinematography, adding to the distance we feel from these characters and their plight.

It manages to be claustrophobic and detached, everything held at arm's-length, at the same time.

Ultimately, my reaction to this movie arises from how I feel about storytelling.  You don't have to have explosions or CGI -- Malle's My Dinner with Andre is two guys talking over dinner, but they're interesting guys talking about interesting things.    "Amour" has a plot -- pretty  much given away in its first few minutes -- but nothing about that plot illuminates these characters, and nothing about these characters touch anything in the viewer.  I keep thinking of that quote from "Patton," where the general is told about the rumor of German "wonder weapons":  "Wonder weapons?  My God, I don't see the wonder in them.  Killing without heroics.  Nothing is glorified, nothing is reaffirmed.  No heroes, no cowards, no troops.  No generals.  Only those that are left alive and those that are left  .  .  .  dead."  This isn't a war movie, of course, but you get the point.  This is a movie without wonder, without catharsis, with nothing affirmed or even denied.

But it cannot be gainsaid that people absolutely loved this movie.  Me, it seemed to me to be the kind of self-consciously arty, cold, faux-sophisticated filmmaking that I thought had gone out of style in the Sixties.  I said above that I don't doubt the sincerity of people who like it.  I wonder, though, what percentage of those who do like it do so because they think they should.  Because it's about old people.  Because it's tough to be so excruciatingly bored struggling with a disabled person.  Because it's French.  It's OK with me to like a movie for these reasons.  They just don't add up to a story, and when I go to the flicks, I want a story.

When I see stuff like "Amour," though, I'm thinking that maybe I'm the one who went out of style in the Sixties.  So maybe I learned something after all.


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