I'm guessing the winner of the 2013 Oscar for Best Foreign Film will be Amour, one of my favorite films from the 50th New York Film Festival, which ended Sunday.
Upon his deathbed, Franz Kafka's only request from those offering him comfort was that they drink water, so he could vicariously partake of what was no longer possible. In Amour, Michael Haneke's case study of coupledom, loyalty and old age, Anne, a music teacher facing the insidious debilitation and growing travails resultant of two cardiac episodes, asks her former piano student -- now a world famous muso -- to play a song she taught him years ago. Her existential longing -- delivered via the serene, broad-faced Emmanuelle Riva's masterly Cheshire Sphinx countenance, lovingly photographed by Darius Khondji -- makes the virtuoso (after a slight hesitation) forgo considerations of throwing his timing, and honor his teacher's request.
Water-as-life is also very present in this chronicle of death foretold, though not as an object of vicarious comfort, but as the draining, or end of life itself: A faucet runs agonizingly in the background during Anne's first apoplectic event; raindrops fall outside the just-out-of-reach window she is trying to jump from; water is delivered (force-fed) to her via sippy cup by Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), her well-intending husband, and she spits it out; a cup of tea is esuriently (existentially? osmotically? vampirically?) imbibed in one desperate gulp by their visiting daughter, Eva (whose hints to her bedridden mother that she needs money are met with a violent bout of spasmodic, throaty gasping, and the sputtering of a few words: "house... money... gone"). Nocturnally, water is a source of shame for Anne during an episode of incontinence, and it also appears in a nightmare Georges has, slowly flooding one end of a hallway -- at the other end of which there appears a descending staircase which is barricaded (and looks like a gallows). Before Georges can choose a direction, he is strangled.
Electronic preservation is also a metaphorical element, from a surreal warning about taping, through the visiting former pupil forgetting to bring a copy of his latest CD, to their shutting off of the disc when they do get it -- each episode constituting a negation of the static preservation of a dynamic entity, perhaps in metaphorical service to a notion about end-of-life issues. Both elements -- water and recording -- emerge in triptychs of sorts, progressing from alarming event, through just-out-of-reach objects, to decisive negation.
The film opens with a paramedic squad breaking down the door to Georges' and Anne's apartment -- it is a prequel by way of a bookend to the break-in they discover when they return home. This is followed by a shot of the couple seated amidst an audience, followed by a shot of them on a bus, appearing like so many elderly couples you see sharing a paper or engrossed separately in books. We learn that the concert was performed by one of their former music pupils. The next morning at the breakfast table, Anne has a stroke, and during her blackout -- in a scene which plays out like a very effective PSA on cardiac crises -- we hear the sound of water running, and it delivers a powerful sense of a life force being drained. Instead of the scene fulfilling our expectations of imminent disaster, the sound of water stops while Georges is in the bedroom preparing for a trip to the hospital. He comes back to find Anne completely unaware of her blackout.
There is a second coronary episode, a hospital visit, a return home, and before long, the total transformation of life as they know it. The instances in which she must lean on him depict a heroic dance of coupledom -- burdensome though it may be. There are several such scenes and they are dually painful and beautiful.
We subsequently get a well-paced chronicle of ever-growing burdens and failed good intentions: Georges' joviality as he begins Anne's physical rehab is quickly replaced by exhaustion; their dependency on concierges become expensive, as every errand is now a paid task; Anne wets the bed, and Georges' loving efforts to comfort her make her feel childish; when she refuses to drink water after two very painful sips during which it dribbles down her neck, he threatens to hospitalize her if she does not try harder, and she spits the water out. He hits her, and their mutual hurt, confusion and frustration is terrifically palpable.
The subject of death emerges as they sit in their study discussing funeral invitations with the mild envy and gossipiness usually expressed over party invites. The scene begins comically as George describes the absurdity of their friend's funeral (the younger, second wife of the deceased plays "Yesterday"; an urn appears ludicrous in a coffin) and quickly goes dark, when he recounts the lowering of the casket into the ground, and we see her face: It is a moment of existential departure from their empathy and humor, in that she is living its inevitability, he is not, and we ken her total isolation. She asks him to promise to never take her back to the hospital. When he doesn't agree immediately, she insists, and instructs him not to answer her at that moment, nor explain his viewpoint. "I'm tired, I want to go to bed", she says, unintentionally quoting the great Morrissey's lyrics from the Smiths' devastatingly lucid valedictory, "Asleep."
Amour is chock-full of a cinematic mastery which makes simple episodes poetic to the nth degree: When Georges wheels Anne back from the hospital, they enter a room filled with beautiful, dusky natural light, and when he turns on the electric lamp, everything seems garish, ugly; Georges' attempt at shaving -- a process of negating natural outgrowth -- is interrupted by Anne's falling; the slamming of the door to their dark-paneled study by a justly-fired nurse ("I heartily wish that someone treats you like you treated my wife, when you are helpless" Georges seethes) resonates like the closing of a coffin or the sealing of a mausoleum; a bust on a mantle stares at an apple -- with a reflection of the apple in the mirror blocking the real apple, as Anne asks their former music student to play a song, indicating a life now only lived in a mind plagued by a longing for what is not possible -- she is trapped now in the world of reflections, memories; the photography of a simple morsel of food being eaten is manifestly informed by the etymology of "victuals"; a late-film montage of paintings goes from a romantic image of a couple taking shelter from the rain, through a series of pastorals depicting increasingly smaller havens of light, and concludes with a landscape of a cliff overlooking a rocky beach and a turbulent sea; a beautiful shot of Riva seated on the floor alongside her wheelchair, under iron-framed windows (which appear as prison bars) as rain falls amidst the blue light of outside, into which she was trying to jump, and which again, contrasts other scenes in which electric light emerges in wholesale discord with natural light.
Amidst all these terrifically detailed scenes, we also experience a very simple moment in which Anne looks through a photo album and concludes simply that life is beautiful. Georges shares an experience from childhood, when, upon his return home from a film that made him cry, he began blubbering anew as he recounted what little he could remember to his neighbor, explaining to Anne: "I felt the emotion more than I remember the film." The sharing of this story is one of his greatest gifts to his wife, by way of a simple, tiny bit of new terrain sprouted up amidst a long landscape of well-burnished, shared recollections. It is a small personal revelation of his tender side, and they share a final, nice moment before she becomes unable to ever speak cogently again. "Careful", she tells him with, a loving smile -- "you might ruin your image in old age." It is a gentle reckoning in a lifetime of the kinds of compromise individuals make in accommodation of coupledom.
In a scene which reminded me of All Quiet On the Western Front, (when the shell-shocked veteran coldly explains to a family member that he no longer feels love) Georges carries on, just barely holding things down as Eva, their visiting daughter subjects him to rote complaints. After she insists they have a serious discussion, he calls her out for presuming to judge whether he was doing what was possible for his life partner. He challengingly -- fully aware that he is positing a rhetorical question -- asks his daughter if she is going to have her mother, about whom she says she is so concerned, move in with her. Eva is not seen again until the end of the film.
After the film's climax, which is followed by its only (and wholly apropos) sentimental scene (both of which I leave for you to experience) we see Anne and Georges' empty apartment. All that remains is a daughter -- and a hushed film festival audience, some of whom weep -- to contemplate their absence.
Haneke's comment during the press conference that at another festival a viewer suggested that perhaps the break-in was a visitation by Death, reminded me again of Kafka, who noted that after he set a trap for a mouse, he could not sleep the entire night, for the sound of death waiting for the mouse was simply too loud.
Amour may very well lead to increased sales of Life Alert systems.
FTD should have tables set up where film-goers can fill out cards and purchase flowers to be sent to their parents. Additionally, cell phone towers near movie theaters will see increased call volumes as moviegoers phone their parents after this film.
With a Dec. 19 release date, Amour may, one hopes, inspire a Capra-esque wave of satori, in which alienated offspring re-bond with their parents.
Though I've generally been indifferent toward The Oscars, I've come to believe that they can be useful and important -- and much more fun. I reckon those of us who (mostly correctly) gripe about the academy, voting processes (or the lack thereof), and the endless politics -- but love and believe in cinema, might put forth suggestions for structural change. Awards aren't so important, but recognition and celebration can be. I'm especially interested in the foreign film categories, the expansion of which ("best" foreign language actors, cinematography, screenplay, director), I believe, could foster significant cultural diplomacy -- on a populist level, that is to say culture-to-culture -- in a time when it is urgently needed. Simply put, nations have much to learn from, and about, each other.
Learn about coronary crises here.