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French cinéma reviews: Amour

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It's Palme D'bore for this dreary art-release...

Review: Amour

The Palme d’Or for best film at Cannes has been going some weird ways of late. 2011’s frankly mental Tree of Life was preceded by 2010’s Thai winner: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives - a snappy title that doesn’t quite prepare one for its monkey men dinner guests and carp cunnilingus. However, in Michael Haneke’s Amour those canny Cannes chaps have rewarded a film that takes them back to their recent happy-place; crushing societal problems. In Amour’s case: old age.

Anne and Georges are an artsy Parisian couple, happy in their mundane octogenarian way – that is until Anne has a stroke and is left paralysed down the entire right hand side of her body. Georges looks after her. End film. And roll on the plaudits - old people are, after all, underrepresented and there’s nothing that invites awards quite like a spotlight on the niche: misunderstood murderers, kind-hearted prostitutes, singular teens. It’s reminiscent of the ubiquitous ‘Poem’s from Other Cultures’ section in GCSE literature anthologies: “Look; something different. Quick, say it’s good, otherwise people will think we’re bigoted.”

Except, of course, old age isn’t something different – barring untimely disease and accidental death-by-cornish-pasty it’ll claim us all eventually. Everything you would expect to feature in this story turns up, and more disappointingly nothing that you don’t expect does: physical frailty, absent relatives, hospitalisation, abusive carers, isolation, the question of euthanasia. It’s all there: square, accurate and truthful.

Review: AmourAnd therein lies the rub: Haneke mistakes truthfulness for interest, and there’s nothing quite so boring as the truth. Far from lending the film potency this cripples the story, miring it in the mundane. Which is all the more odd as Amour comes from the director who brought us remote controlled hyper-violence in Funny Games, and rendered the audience complicit in the sinister stalking of a family in Hidden. Maybe he’s bored of imagination; rumour has it it’s exceedingly wearing. But whatever the reason, Amour plays more like documentary than fiction. It is all too realistic. Everyone who watches this film will have first-hand experience of a loved-one’s degeneration; I don’t much fancy seeing a film about the trials of washing up, and I don’t want to re-witness the joys of geriatric nappies.

Glibness aside, Amour features two very potent lead performances from Jean-Louis Trintagnant and Emmanuelle Riva – rendered all the harder hitting by the fact that they probably aren’t acting for the most part. They stumble, mumble and mishear as all old people do. Aged 85, Riva may not be paralysed as Anne is, but when she repeatedly cries out a muffled word that could be ‘maman’ (mother) as much as it could be ‘mort’ (death) one can’t help but be moved by the actress’ commitment in so obviously foreshadowing her near future.

But outside of the performances the film falls apart. In a recent Guardian interview Haneke asserted: "We must allow for complexities and contradictions.” But there aren’t any to be found in Amour: no hearty questions, no real conflict, no story. Roger Michell’s 2006 film Venus takes an imaginative and comedic view of old age. Pretty much any Ozu film is heavy with wistful nostalgia and a sense of a generation gap between old and young. Haneke does away with such distracting concerns, focusing his lens squarely on the stark and hoary process of dying. And you feel the process – it’s long and weary and like Anne you want it to be over long before it is.

Not that Anne’s death comes as a surprise. The very first scene shows her wreathed in flowers, pristine on her deathbed, sealed in a room heavy with her passing – think the worst smells of an old person’s home: brewed, stewed, and canned-up for a few airless weeks. Such a definitive ending goes against form for Haneke. Like an art-house Coen brother he usually shirks answers, inviting the audience to complete the film for themselves.  A lofty and laudable aim, certainly, but one that simply doesn’t apply here. Amour may be bleak but it is not open-ended.

Haneke also clearly believes Amour to be more confrontational than it is. Back in 2006 he professed: “I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence.”  Distasteful rather than disgusting, there’s nothing in Amour that shocks so much as tires. The film is wearisome. Do not, whatever you do, accept the camomile tea no doubt offered with this film at ‘silver’ screenings. You will fall asleep, and your slumber will be foetid.

Interestingly, the film cost €7.3m to make – with no external shots, and barely anything that takes us outside of a one-bedroom flat, it is quite simply époustoufflant where the deuce this money went. The cinematography is unfussy and realistic and the décor is far from indulgent. There is, however, Eric the stunt pigeon who makes multiple appearances; indeed, Eric beats most of the humans for screentime in this movie. I like Eric – his appearances light up the screen – but he’s not enough of a reason to see this truthfully acted but ultimately dull film.

2 stars

Amour was released in the UK November 16


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