Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Amour (Michael Haneke), Holy Motors (Leos Carax)

Love Never Dies

Amour feels like a film Michael Haneke has been aspiring to do, a Bethlehem he has been slouching towards for years. From the pressure-cooker tactics he applied in Funny Games he has refined his technique to what we see here--two people trapped in a large apartment, struggling to survive.

The style in Funny Games was severe, the story confined mostly inside a spacious vacation house with few exterior scenes, a largely unflinching (if often coyly oblique) camera peering into the different rooms with (except for one brief and startling exception of a gimmick) little comment or fuss. The style in Amour is if anything even more spare, the camera locked down for most of a scene, unwilling (unlike the one in Funny Games) to look away, the staging calling for very little camera movement  or cutting and (again save for a brief sequence) even less fuss.

That exception I feel is unfortunate--Haneke seems to have perfected his grindingly claustrophobic style; to indulge in fantasy no matter how inventive or restrained or even relevant (it's a metaphor for escape, or its impossibility) seems superfluous, even disruptive. The interruption lets us off the hook for a moment, relieves the oppressive atmosphere.

This is a horror story, of course; think of a man torturing his captive wife to death and there's really little difference save this: the torture in my example would have gone on far longer. Haneke has finally come around to telling a story about recognizably ordinary (if affluent--that apartment is huge) people, in this case an elderly married couple; aside from the aforementioned brief flight of fantasy the whole film could be happening to your neighbors in the apartment next door. And instead of anger or sadism the driving emotion here is the eponymous one, expressed in the somehow more appropriate French. 

Much has been written about Emmanuel Riva's performance as Anne, the eloquent depiction of her character's gradually decaying body. I say this is not so much a solo as it is a duet--crucial is Jean-Louis Trintignant's Georges, with his intelligent, all-too-aware eyes. He knows what's happening, he knows what is to come, and the knowledge threatens to overwhelm him. 

Might as well note that Haneke doles out plenty of suffering for both actors--Riva sits in a bathtub naked,  scrubbed vigorously by an unpleasant nurse; Trintignant huffs desperately (not to mention suspensefully and  hilariously) after an intrusive pigeon. You don't know if he is only acting his arthritic limp, or his excruciating attempt to get up off the floor; you only know that it's almost too much to watch. Is the scene necessary? I think so--it shows Georges still able to care for a living creature, though you wonder if perhaps what he really wants is to twist the bird's neck (with Haneke both are possible, perhaps even inevitable)

There is no escape here; no puncturing the plausibility of Haneke's scenario (unlike fellow shockmeister Lars Von Trier, whose scenarios (save in The Idiots) have almost always been implausible, and hence easy to dismiss). This is easily Haneke's most horrifying film because it says that love that is selfless and passionate and enduring is also monstrous. The film shows you (step by step, moment by moment) the how and why of its monstrosity and you can't contradict the case being made, you can only agree with it--perhaps pray it doesn't happen to you.

It's Haneke's best work to date, I think; possibly Haneke's terminal work...after a film like this, what else does he have to say, really? 

Big Wheel

Unlike Amour which lends a kind of stripped-down finality to Haneke's career, Leos Carax's Holy Motors seems more like a thrown-together, extravagantly appointed photo album of all the films he's seen and all the films he's made and all the films he's likely to make--the picture hurls allusions and ideas at you like sparks off a Catherine wheel. It's brilliantly unhinged, liable to go any direction like a runaway horsecart, yet still you sense the presence of the director at the reins, maintaining the illusion of complete abandonment (or is it an illusion of complete control?).

The film can be a metaphor for any number of things: the Shakespearean notion that life is a performance we're always trying to rehearse for (but end up improvising); the conceit that higher powers (Oscar's chauffer Celine (Edith Scob, the mad doctor's disfigured daughter in Franju's Eyes Without a Face) calls a fellow driver "Ectoplasm on wheels!"--are the drivers ghosts or spirits?) manipulate our destiny; the sense that life is a neverending job from which we long to punch out

Bits seem contradictory, if not confusing--Celine mentions that Mr. Oscar (Denis Lavant) has nine appointments, nine encounters (if you like) in which he participates, responds to or initiates, either alone or with others. I counted thirteen 'episodes,' not nine: man in 'forest;' banker; beggar woman; motion capture; Monsieur Merde and model; father and daughter; entr'acte with accordion; assassin and double; street shooting; dying old man; Jean; home; limo garage. 

 Celine tells him about the appointments when he's playing a banker so the first two are out; the entr'acte I take to be an entr'acte--outside the narrative; the street shooting is (or so Celine claims) an accident, and so (it's implied) is the encounter with Jean; Oscar confirms that the next appointment after the dying old man is his last, so the garage should not included, which leaves us with--what, seven episodes? Do we consider Monsieur Merde and model two episodes (first half in the cemetery, second in the sewers)? Do we include the entr'acte? Adding to the confusion, the credits have Lavant playing eleven roles (we can take out Mr. Oscar as his meta-persona and the accordion player, but do we count killer and killed?).

Kylie Minogue sings heartrendingly in a vast space that recalls Orson Welles' The Trial and the climax of Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva, both shot in the Gare d'Orsay, both filled with a dark opulence that seems to have inspired this film (her scene was actually shot in the abandoned La Samaritaine department store near the Pont-Neuf bridge, Carax having used store and bridge in his previous Les Amants du Pont-Neuf). Minogue calls herself Eva but her real name (as much as we can ascertain anything in this picture is real) is Jean. When the man she is to meet runs up the stairs he calls out "Jean!"--does this signify that what happens to Jean and her partner is real and not staged, hence Oscar's anguish? 

All very mysterious; doesn't help that one has the nagging feeling Carax is chortling at all the effort being expended on unraveling his tangled web (for the record I believe Oscar's appointment list went something like this: beggar woman; motion capture; Monsieur Merde; father; entr'acte; assassin; assassinated; dying man; home). More profitable, I suspect, to simply sit back and have fun free-associating the metaphors as they flash across the screen--to sit back, in effect, and enjoy the ride. 

Perhaps the closest we come to an explanation for everything (an explanation for anything?) is when Michel Piccoli--in a role Carax wanted to (ah-ha!) play himself--asks an obviously exhausted Oscar: "What makes you carry on?" Oscar's answer: "What made me start. The beauty of the act." 

"Beauty?" Piccoli's Carax-like figure can't resist musing. "They say it's in the eye of the beholder." Pause. Then in a worried tone: "And if there is no beholder?"



JC said...

Haven't had the opportunity to catch Amour yet, so I won't comment on that.

I did watch Holy Motors twice in the past week. Given the words many critics used to describe it ("Exhilarating", for example), I didn't initially expect it to have such a sombre tone (overall). I guess I figured it would be a bit more, uh, whimsical. So I watched it again, with such tonal expectations set aside, to see if I responded more strongly to it on second viewing. I felt about the same, which is to say, that it's an intriguing series of vignettes, some considerably more compelling than others.

Anyways, given how open to interpretation the film is, I figured you'd have a field day with this review. Instead, you seem to be focusing more on the literal aspects of the plot (which is very unusual for you), such as how many "appointments" are in fact featured in the film. I guess it has some relevance, if one is determined to establish a dividing line between the "fantasy" and "reality" of the lead character, but given whom Oscar ends the evening with, it doesn't seem like "reality" ever really enters into it. And that's fine.

I kind of feel like the film's primarily concerned with the act/art of performance, and how it relates to the ever-evolving means of creation and distribution of said art. Sort of the line between what's physically/spiritually tangible, and what's not. Some "films" are being made on small handheld devices (heck, cell phones in some cases), and many folks are encountering films in a purely digital form (no hard copies required). And, over time, should that be considered a degradation or deterioration of the art form, just as the lead character of the film seems weary, and slowly dying, right before our eyes?

Now I don't want to reduce it to just that, but it does seem like an ongoing concern for the director, how a performance is created and received, and whatnot.

And I completely understand why a critic wouldn't want to try to spell it out like that, because that could diminish some of the film's visceral appeal.

I don't love it, but it's certainly a film worth talking about.

Noel Vera said...

Ah, but I do say what I think Carax thinks of people who try parse the plot.

I like it very much. Films don't need a conventional narrative (which Amour is, actually) to be interesting, or even moving.

Noel Vera said...

The somber tone brings out one theme I find in the film, that life is an endless work shift where you yearn to punch out. It shares that much with Amour.

JC said...

" Films don't need a conventional narrative (which Amour is, actually) to be interesting, or even moving."

Oh, that goes without saying; Bunuel and Fellini proved that again and again in their films, and Holy Motors owes a debt to both of those filmmakers, particularly the former. And, for the record, by saying "I don't love it", I'm not suggesting that I don't like it. Basically, I'm very fond of some sections (Merde, motion capture, musical, accordian), considerably less fond of others (deathbed scene, argument with daughter).

Regarding the deathbed scene, it's such a well-worn dramatic cliche that, for me, even a postmodern approach is rather tedious. And that could be entirely the intent, but it doesn't make it any more dramatically interesting. The only unique element of it, IMO, is when he gets out of bed to bid adieu, and you get the sense that the other actress wanted to continue a while longer, as though perhaps she was working through some of her own "real-life" issues in the "staged" environment.

My general disinterest in/boredom with deathbed scenes (heck, even in real life, I'm borderline immune to them) has me a little concerned about Amour. I'm hoping it's not just two hours of the husband watching his wife suffer. At least in Sarah Polley's Away From Her, we had the added interest of the Julie Christie's character recognizing that her mind was fading, which helped elevate it above movie-of-the-week status.

Some of the themes of Holy Motors remind me of Synecdoche, New York. Both had aging, deteriorating, seemingly depressed protagonists; both dealt with "the world's a stage" motif without a visible audience; both had main characters looking to disappear into other personas, perhaps for cathartic reasons; both are very self-indulgent (not necessarily a bad thing!) films, given to a fair degree of mock sincerity (again, not necessarily a bad thing). Now, they're very different films, visually and structurally, and I'm not going to argue that Charlie Kaufman is a more accomplished filmmaker (how could he be, after only one feature?), but I feel like SNY had more emotional dimension and pull, particularly towards the end.

Noel Vera said...

See, I think Lavant getting up is the whole point of that death scene; adds a spark of artifice that doesn't necessarily take away from the scene, perhaps helps sell it better.

Amour for what it's worth is what I've described it: two hours of Haneke's camera bearing down on the two. There are walk on characters, and Huppert plays a significant part, but that's basically the movie, and the strength of the movie.

Synecdoche is I suppose more substantial. But Kaufman's suffering is so self-centered (it--the whole world inside that warehouse--is all about him) it doesn't do much for me. Plus he really needed a Gondry or at least Jonze to realize his ideas visually.

JC said...

I agree about Lavant getting up making the scene more interesting.

Kaufman's worlds are indeed self-centered, and I can see how that would turn some folks off. It certainly explains the mixed reviews the film got.


Noel Vera said...

I do enjoy Kaufman's works; they're entertainingly intricate and he's an original. They're just not to my taste. For metafictional worlds, I prefer the relatively simpler but more emotionally complex worlds of, say, Dennis Potter.