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We get used to the way films tell stories, and in general we know what to expect whenever we pay our money, get our tickets torn and settle in our seats with our popcorn and ice creams. It’s often quite possible to predict almost everything that happens onscreen, especially in those films that fit into genres.
American rom-coms, cop thrillers, horror films, teen comedies, and ‘English’ films, all fill our multiplexes and fit our comfort zones very nicely, thank you.
A unique film-maker
Out there, occasionally, there appears a figure cut from a completely different cloth, a film-maker who has a unique way of telling a story and a style so individual that you could recognise any randomly-viewed scene as being from one of his films.
Michael Haneke is one of these. I struggle to imagine how he gets finance for his films, until I remember how many awards he has won in film festivals all over the world for so many years. I suspect that there are millions of European film-goers who are familiar with his work. Sadly, the English don’t generally see cinema as being an art form.
Is it in ‘Foreign’?
We like our entertainment. If a film is in black and white or needs subtitles, it ends up being shown for short periods in ‘Art-house’ cinemas (surely a term of abuse) if they’re lucky.
I can’t recommend Amour, the latest of Haneke’s films, to an English audience. It doesn’t tick any of the boxes in our comfort zones. It’s about an elderly French couple living in Paris in a small flat. Apart from a brief opening scene, the whole film takes place inside their few cramped rooms. There is no action and nobody of any significance who is less than middle-aged. There’s no music apart from some Schubert piano pieces. There’s no story.
Astonishing power and beauty
Am I whetting your appetite yet? There’s more. One of them starts to exhibit signs of Alzheimer’s and begins to die.
Haneke takes this unpromising material and creates a film of astonishing power and beauty. He wrings performances of a lifetime from two magnificent veteran French actors – Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. His camera often stays still for unbearably long periods, just watching their faces express their feelings, or it follows or precedes them as they move from room to room. It must have been immensely difficult to work in such a confined space without giving away any idea of the existence of the camera. The sound quality is amazing, because it captures the quality of a silence that amplifies small sounds, like swallowing, or irregular breathing.
The highest quality and courage
This is film-making of the highest quality and courage, because Haneke pulls no punches. His camera and microphone captures without flinching every heartbreaking downward step as one partner loses control and communication and physical abilities and the other desperately tries to retrieve and care for the person they’ve known and lived with so long, the person they love.
I’ve only been to see three films that I can remember when the film ended amid complete silence. This was one of them. We watched it in the excellent No.6 Cinema in Portsmouth last week, and I’m still going over it in my head and wondering what these characters were like together and separately in all the earlier stages of their lives.
I can’t praise Amour too highly, and I know that it won’t be the cup of tea for the majority of film-goers. That’s fair enough. It’s been nominated for Baftas and Oscars, and I hope it wins lots of them. It deserves every plaudit and prize it wins. It’s an amazing film and an extraordinary achievement and we’re lucky to live at a time when such works of art can be created and made available to us.