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Film Review


Michael Haneke has made a handful of finely wrought, beautifully acted and filmed works, some enigmatic and not immediately accessible, some bleak, but all powerful and accomplished. Haneke, born 1942, is a highly regarded Austrian director, son of German and Austrian actor parents. His first feature film, The Seventh Continent (1989), was about a famous case of a seemingly happy Austrian family that commits suicide. This was followed by what became his greatest film (until Amour): The Piano Teacher (2001), starring Isabell Huppert as an obsessed piano teacher with a tortured relationship with her mother, who self mutilates herself for pleasure and provokes her student to beat and rape her. Very hard to watch in parts, but it is a brilliant film that won numerous awards. In 2005 Haneke produced Cache, which tells the complex story of an upper middle class Parisian family who receive surveillance tapes of their house. Cache was critically acclaimed and also won a number of awards, but was disqualified from the Oscars as the Austrian film entry, with much controversy, because the spoken language was French. Otherwise it likely would have won. His next major film, The White Ribbon (2009), shot in black and white, was set in a small Northern German town on the eve of WW l, in which unexplained things happen against the backdrop of a politically oppressive culture. Children are punished harshly and strange accidents occur. All this is told as a narrative by an elderly man, who was there when much younger. This is Haneke's most enigmatic film, yet it is visually beautiful and the story riveting. Some think he was showing a culture that could produce a Hitler. It too won many awards, including the Golden Globes best foreign film for 2010, and had an Academy nomination, but no wins.

Amour, Haneke's finest film yet, opened in the US late last year, and is now one of the Academy nominees for Best Foreign Film. It is the moving love story of two piano teachers who have grown old together, and are living a comfortable retired life in their Paris apartment. The couple, Georges and Anne, are played by the greatest living pair of French actors: Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, The Conformist, The Passengers, Three Colors: Red, and many more) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour). Both the actors and their characters are in their 80's now, and both transcendent. Theirs is a relationship of quiet deep love and respect, fashioned over many years.

The film opens with a jarring scene: a seemingly empty apartment with a locked front door. Fireman break open the the door, then walk through the apartment, and finally open a bedroom door where they discover a handsome older woman in a formal dress lying on her bed, surrounded by garlands of carefully arranged flowers, as if in state. The screen goes black, then titles and credits, and re-opens at a piano concert in a large auditorium. The audience is looking at directly at us, as if we were the performer, and soon begins to applaud as the pianist begins to play. In the audience we notice a handsome older couple, also applauding, and then see them at the post concert reception for the pianist, who greets them with obvious affection and respect. When the couple, Georges and Anne, return to their apartment, they discover someone has broken in through the front door. It is Haneke's metaphor for misfortune. The next morning while they are eating breakfast, Georges notices that Anne is suddenly sitting silent and apparently frozen in place. He is alarmed, starts to get dressed, and when he returns in a minute Anne is awake and completely unaware that anything has occurred. She chides him for suggesting that anything happened. But then she tries to pour herself a cup of tea, and misses the teacup.

Her doctor discovers that she has a carotid artery issue, and the operation is not successful. She returns to the apartment in a wheel chair pushed by Georges, and they continue living, but changed by her mobility issues because her right side is now paralyzed. She is terrified of hospitals, and insists that Georges never let her return to one. And she begins to further decline, all the while lovingly cared for by Georges. Their daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert, is living overseas, and with issues of her own, but does visit and tries in her own way to help. It is clear there is some distance between the mother and daughter, but Haneke doesn't explore this, focusing instead on Georges struggle to care for Anne. Toward the end of the film, a pigeon comes in through the open lightwell window, and begins to wander around. The first time Georges shoos him out, but later the pigeon returns. I interpreted the pigeon as Haneke's symbol of the holy spirit. If so, it makes the ending more comprehensible.

Amour is Haneke's most unambiguous film. It is clear, truthful, bleak and rigorously honest. We see the body's sad decline and the great difficulty in living a dignified independent life. Haneke is unflinching as he follows Anne's deterioration, when soon only her eyes can express emotion. This is a sad, moving, yet very beautiful story, with acting that is beyond acting. We are watching two lifetimes of acting experience here, and it shows. The cinematography is masterful, with each scene a gem of composition. Often Haneke keeps his camera stationary and continues to shoot even though the actors have left. He even scans their large collection of landscape paintings to emphasize that their apartment is also an important participant. There are many closeups of both Trintignant and Riva, whose expressions and eyes say so much. Classical piano pieces performed by the artists themselves constitute the only film score. The camera doesn't need music to assist in creating its own power here. Pacing varies but this 127 minute film rarely lags.

I loved this film, and had it opened in San Francisco last year, would have been my best film for 2012. Amour is a masterpiece, and has already won numerous awards in Europe, including the Palme d'Or. Yesterday it won a Golden Globe award for best foreign language film, and despite strong competition, will surely win an Oscar for the same. Just opened here this weekend at the Clay, and a wonderful start to a new year of films.

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