All About “Amour” on Either Side of the “Window”

20 08 2013

The following piece was written for Dr. Mary Dalton‘s Film Theory and Criticism in spring 2013.

SPOILER ALERT: The following post discusses major plot points in both Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” and Michael Haneke’s “Amour.”

What do an American film from the 1950s about a cooped up reporter and a French film from 2012 about a woman dying slowly from a debilitating stroke have in common?  While “Rear Window” and “Amour” seem to be an extremely unlikely pair, they explore common themes of love in confined spaces.  Both films take place almost entirely within a single apartment, although Alfred Hitchcock’s classic focuses mostly on the action outside the window while Michael Haneke chooses to keep his camera focused on what happens inside the window to the outside world.  Yet in spite of their different emphases, both filmmakers come the conclusion that couples must turn their sights inward in order to fully realize their love for each other.  Through forced identification, Hitchcock and Haneke’s films powerfully convey the dangers that come along with spectatorship.

Rear Window

A line delivered at the beginning of “Rear Window by Thelma Ritter’s Stella, “we’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” has become a famous and often quoted passage from the film.  Most, however, tend to cut out the sentence that follows it: “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”  Taking that sentence into account as well, Stella is not only offering merely an implicit critique of the voyeurism of humanity – a flaw largely compounded by Hitchcock’s contemporaries in the cinema – but also bringing up a seldom noticed side effect.  She is taking L.B. Jeffries, known in the film as “Jeff,” to task for being so concerned with the lives of others that he lets his relationship with his girlfriend begin to rot.

Throughout the film, Jeff’s obsession with watching the world out his rear window is seen as an impediment to the love and intimacy between he and his girlfriend, Lisa.  Every time they begin to hold each other and show tenderness, his thoughts about his neighbors’ exploits distract him, often compelling him to pick up his binoculars and look in on them. Hitchcock uses forced identification with Jeff’s outward gaze by the editing style of subjective POV, making the viewer not merely a party to this denial but entirely complicit in it.  Jeff is never seen through the window, just looking out it from the shadows, a clever replication of what the audience does in the act of watching the film in a dark theater.

RearWindow5

By his casting a gaze out the window, he neglects her needs not only intimately but also on a deeper relational level; it is clear that she is seeking marriage, yet Jeff seems clueless or at least ambivalent towards her regular hints. Their love is always broken off by one of them, normally Lisa, before it can escalate.  The film’s final shot, however, hints at some sort of reconciliation between the couple, though nothing is made explicit.  While the neighbors go about their lives, Jeff sits in his wheelchair with his back turned away from the window, soaking in the sunlight rather than lurking in the shadows.  He falls asleep with a smile on his face; meanwhile, Lisa moves from reading a serious book to please him to reading a fashion magazine for her own pleasure.  Her demeanor and posture appear markedly more relaxed and comfortable, hinting at a much-improved relationship with Jeff’s gaze turned inwards towards her.

Amour

“Amour,” on the other hand, offers no such getaways for its characters or the audience watching the film.  Georges and Anne, the octogenarian couple, are trapped with each other in the apartment as she slowly succumbs to complications a series of strokes.  The two spend nearly every moment together; Georges even pays someone to go get their groceries so he can stay and monitor Anne.  Similarly, Haneke never grants the audience a single moment of escape from their lives, confining the viewer into the apartment as an objective, third unacknowledged presence in the room.  His sparse editing that chooses to leave the dull bits of life in the film as well as his predilection for long shots in deep focus provides the audience with a cold reality that they either have to accept watching or must avert their eyes from entirely.

As Anne’s condition worsens, she begins to express her great dismay with her physical state, eventually telling him, “Georges, I don’t want to carry on. You’re making such efforts to make everything easier for me. But I don’t want to go on. For my own sake. Not yours.”  Georges initially writes off her request as ridiculous because he believes she does not want to keep living to spare him pain.  Yet after she suffers a second stroke that takes away her ability to speak coherently, Georges begins to see just how miserable an existence she has come to live.  He observes as nurses give her showers, and the slightest wrong touch brings her excruciating pain.  He tries to feed her, yet she spits the water back in his face.  Her anguish leads him to slowly remove his own opinions from his view and focus all the more closely on her.

With all this attention and gaze directed solely inwards at their relationship, Georges eventually comes to do the selfless thing and put her out of her misery.  He achieves this in a respectful and loving way by putting her at ease by telling her a pleasant childhood story and then by smothering her.  Had he been aloof and turned his attention outside their apartment, he would not have noticed her lifeless life, nor would he have lovingly honored her request.  Similarly, the audience through their forced witnessing of events come to interpret his killing as an action not motivated by selfishness; rather, they see it as fulfilling the action indicated in the title: love.  It just takes the course of the movie for Georges to gain the same level of objectivity that the audience has been given since the beginning of the film.  Only when that is achieved can he realize that true love is complicated and requires tough decisions.

Amour

“Rear Window” and “Amour,” despite their different plots and tones, arrive at the same general truth within the setting of an apartment.  By casting our gaze abroad, we ignore the problems at the heart of our most treasured relationships.  Only when we look inward and give our own lives the attention they deserve can we truly find the love we need to give others.  Ironically, to liberate us from our obsession with spectatorship, Hitchcock and Haneke feel that they must first trap us in it.

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Oscar Moment: Final 2012 Predictions, Part 3 (Leading)

7 01 2013

Only three days until Oscar nominations are announced!  It’s so weird to have them this early … I feel like I barely predicted at all this year.  Nonetheless, it’s time to lock in my final picks!  Today, it’s one last glimpse at the leading acting categories.

See my predictions for Best Original Screenplay and Best Adapted Screenplay.

See my predictions for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.

Best Actor

  1. Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln
  2. Hugh Jackman, “Les Misérables
  3. Bradley Cooper, “Silver Linings Playbook
  4. John Hawkes, “The Sessions
  5. Denzel Washington, “Flight

I was wrong, this is Daniel Day-Lewis’ race to lose.  My gosh, he is winning everything!  Look at this chart of dominance.  It turns Anne Hathaway’s dream to shame.

DDL Dominance

He’s going to come charging into the Kodak Theatre to get that record-setting third Oscar for Best Actor.  This is like Phillip Seymour Hoffman for “Capote,” Forest Whitaker for “The Last King of Scotland,” and … well, Daniel Day-Lewis for “There Will Be Blood” levels of momentum.

Les Miz

If anyone takes him down, though, it’s going to be Hugh Jackman.  He had many doubters until the film was unveiled, and he’s taken the big three nods from BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  He will almost certainly win the Golden Globe.  Maybe, just maybe, he can stage an Adrian Brody-esque upset.

The nomination will likely be the win for Bradley Cooper, who has triumphantly exceeded expectations in “Silver Linings Playbook” and likely redefined how the industry sees him.  Well done, sir.  I’m pleased that a clear path to a nomination emerged with Critics’ Choice, SAG, and Golden Globe recognition.  I thought it might be a more uphill climb, but I have been very pleasantly surprised.

Beyond DDL, Jackman, and Cooper, my certainty stops.  I am almost positive the final two nominees will be John Hawkes for “The Sessions” and Denzel Washington in “Flight.”  They were feted by BFCA, SAG, and HFPA.  Joaquin Phoenix, on the other hand, missed with SAG and will likely be left out in the cold (much to my chagrin).

Master

I’m on the record as being nonplussed by Hawkes and Washington, though I greatly admire many other performances by the two actors.  For my money, Phoenix was the best performance of the year.  Several others have seen what I have seen, and he’s picked up a few critics’ groups notices.  He was also nominated by the Golden Globes, albeit in the segregated drama category, and the Critics’ Choice Awards, which had six nominees.

Sadly, it looks like Phoenix will follow the trajectory of Michael Fassbender’s work in “Shame,” my favorite performance of 2011.  Fassbender and Phoenix were both winners of the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival.  Their work was widely acclaimed, and their movies were polarizing.  They won Best Actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association among several other prizes.  They picked up key nominations from BFCA and HFPA, but their SAG snub raised some red flags.

FlightPhoenix’s journey will likely end the same way Fassbender’s did.  Repelling the Academy, Fassbender was left on the outside looking in at the Best Actor category.  Phoenix shouldn’t mind being put in the same position, however, because he hates awards season and thinks the Oscars are BS.

So it looks like I’ll be predicting the SAG nominees to repeat five-for-five.  Boring, disappointing, I know.  But there’s nothing screaming to go against conventional wisdom here.

I don’t think Richard Gere for “Arbitrage,” Jack Black for “Bernie,” Denis Lavant for “Holy Motors,” Jean-Louis Trintignant for “Amour,” or Anthony Hopkins for “Hitchcock” really have much of a chance.  Each has a few respective laurels, but the frontrunning five are just too strong for there to be a major surprise.

Then again, last year gave us not only Demian Bichir but an out-of-nowhere nod for Gary Oldman.  So we’ll just have to see.  Maybe the Academy has a few tricks up its sleeve in 2012 that we just have no way to forecast.

Best Actress

  1. Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty
  2. Jennifer Lawrence, “Silver Linings Playbook
  3. Naomi Watts, “The Impossible”
  4. Marion Cotillard, “Rust and Bone
  5. Quvenzhané Wallis, “Beasts of the Southern Wild

Zero Dark Thirty FYCThe dynamics at the top of the race have changed little over the past month.  It’s still a Chastain vs. Lawrence cage match, and I think we won’t really know until the envelope is opened.  They will go head-to-head at the Critics’ Choice Awards and the SAG Awards, but Viola Davis won both of those last year and lost the Oscar.  The Golden Globe will do nothing to clear up the picture as they will compete in separate categories.  I give Chastain the edge now.

But below Chastain and Lawrence, so much is fluctuating.  This is the most fluid acting category of the four in 2012, capable of many unsurprising surprises.  And if any race is suggesting that conventional wisdom and historical precedent simply won’t do, this would be it.

It would seem that Naomi Watts and Marion Cotillard would be assured nominations for “The Impossible” and “Rust and Bone,” respectively.  They’ve scored the BFCA, SAG, and HFPA hat trick of nominations, just about the best safety net you can have.  Both also look to be the only nominations for their respective movies as “The Impossible” missed the cut for visual effects and France chose “The Intouchables” over “Rust and Bone” to compete in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

WattsI’m much more bullish on Watts, a prior nominee for “21 Grams” back in 2003, perhaps because I haven’t seen the movie yet and can visualize her more as a statistic (sorry for the bluntness, but that’s the name of the game).  I’ve read that “The Impossible” has really played the guild circuit, ginning up admiration for Watts and the cast along the way.  She got a high-profile shout-out from a mere acquaintance, Reese Witherspoon, in Entertainment Weekly that a lot of people saw.

For whatever reason, she just seems very strong to me.  The movie seems like the emotional tour de force they look for in leading performances for women.

Having said that, Marion Cotillard shows the same level of emotional devastation, just on a more subtle level.  If she hadn’t won for a French language performance, I’d be hesitant to think she could be nominated for one.  But she has, and I feel a hunch that the Oscars won’t snub her brilliant performance.  Apparently, the Academy voters really responded to “Rust and Bone,” and if that’s the case, why wouldn’t they nominate its star?

So I’ll go ahead and predict that Watts and Cotillard make it, although I could see a foreseeable outcome where one gets knocked out.  I doubt they slap these precursors in the face so hard that both get turned away.

HitchcockSAG’s fifth nominee was Helen Mirren for “Hitchcock,” who also landed a Golden Globe nod.  Mirren has become a recent darling of the Academy.  I got fooled once by not predicting her in 2009 for “The Last Station,” and a part of me thinks I might be making the same mistake again.  Check out how eerily similar these two cases of Helen Mirren in Best Actress contention are:

“Common sense would say it is going to Helen Mirren for ‘The Last Station.’  She has the respect; we know because she won this award three short years ago.  She has been nominated by the SAG and the Golden Globes, two very crucial precursors.  But she has no victories and, more importantly, no passionate supporters.”

Going back and reading this is actually kind of scary because this year, she has SAG and HFPA in her corner … and basically no one else, unless you put a lot of stock in the prognosticating abilities of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association.  The movies even received the same lukewarm reception: “Hitchcock” got a 66% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while “The Last Station” scored a 70% fresh.

I fear that the British contingent, which was a major part in making a Best Actor nomination for Gary Oldman in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” a reality, might be muddling our ability to make a prediction here.  Will this sizable portion of the Academy come through and give Mirren a fourth nomination in seven years?  I’m not picking Mirren because a 5-for-5 match with SAG just doesn’t feel right for this field rife with contenders.  (And especially with the men looking likely to perfectly align with SAG.)

RivaPerhaps that same European bloc of voters will be split among several other contenders from across the sea.  The French Cotillard could steal some European love, as could the British-Australian Watts.  Emmanuelle Riva could also make a play for that contingent for her work in “Amour.”

The Critics’ Choice nominee has quite a case to make for her nomination.  At 85, she’s a respected figure from the French New Wave that many recognize and respect.  Sony Pictures Classics has even gotten her to do some press for the film, including an in-depth session with The New York Times that’s well worth a read.  Many critics’ groups have aligned behind her, including such notable groups from Boston, Los Angeles, New York Online, and the National Society of Film Critics.  Perhaps worth noting, she won the European Film Award for Best Actress.

But why did SAG and the Golden Globes overlook Riva?  Neither are particularly xenophobic; the Globes’ dramatic actress category has seen a number of foreign-language nominees, including a rather strange nod for Kristin Scott Thomas in 2008 for “I’ve Loved You So Long.”  And at her age, it would seem that the SAG would want to bow down at her feet, and at the very least nominate her!

Rust and Bone

I can’t predict Riva with these two high-profile misses.  Perhaps she will be the exception, but I think her nomination is a pipe dream of critics.  She’s the Sally Hawkins for “Happy-Go-Lucky” of the year, a nominee that they try to make happen but just doesn’t click with the Academy.

Even less likely is British actress Rachel Weisz, in play for “The Deep Blue Sea” thanks to the New York Film Critics Circle reminding voters that her movie exists.  A March release automatically faces an uphill climb for a nomination since it has to fight to be remembered, and the Golden Globes did reward her performance.  Perhaps she’s the big surprise, but a SAG nomination would have been the more helpful precursor notice to pick up.

Also feted by the Golden Globes was Judi Dench for “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”  This wouldn’t really be worth mentioning if it wasn’t … well, Judi Dench.  However, the movie is more likely to see recognition in the Best Supporting Actress category for Maggie Smith.  For that matter, Dench is more likely to see recognition in that category as well for her work in “Skyfall.”

And now, we arrive at our final contender, Quvenzhané Wallis for her extraordinary performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”  Now 9, the pint-sized but spunky Wallis would be the youngest Best Actress nominee ever.  Even more impressive is that she was 6 when the movie was shot.

However, at the moment, she’s going virtually unnoticed.  Could Scott MacDonald have been right in his article on The Atlantic?

“Though she’s nine now, she was a mere six when the film was shot. To put it another way, she was not quite seven, which is the year developmental psychologists like to refer to as the age of reason: when kids start making decisions based on logic and causality. I’m no psych expert, but it seems to me this might be the sensible cut-off point for acting plaudits.

Acting requires some intentionality on the part of the actor, some conscious effort to adopt a persona other than his or her own. Even adult actors who get criticized for “playing themselves” are engaged in a series of more or less conscious decisions about how best to be themselves onscreen. A young child, meanwhile, likely isn’t thinking at all about how to be herself, let alone a character. She’s a kid, and she just ‘is.'”

Beasts

So is that it?  Have most considered her too young and written off her candidacy?  MacDonald did note that 8-year-old Justin Henry was nominated for “Kramer vs. Kramer,” so a nomination wouldn’t be entirely unprecedented.  But all she’s netted is a Critics Choice nod for Best Actress and a handful of breakout performer awards.

We will never know if she had a shot with SAG because the non-union production “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was ruled ineligible to compete.  However, the novelty of her contention should have been enough to attract the Golden Globes, but they totally snubbed the entire film.  I already floated the “too American” rationale for its exclusion, citing “True Grit” as an example, but the snub is really troubling.

The Oscars do love young nominees, though.  There have been plenty of pre-pubescent nominees in Academy history, most recently Abigail Breslin for “Little Miss Sunshine.”  Saiorse Ronan and Hailee Steinfeld, though quite a bit older than Willis, nonetheless were nominees.  And in 2003, lest we forget, 13-year-old Keisha Castle-Hughes’ performance in “Whale Rider” knocked out Nicole Kidman for “Cold Mountain” and Scarlett Johansson for “Lost in Translation.”  The young are often a force to be reckoned with at the Oscars.

I’ll lay out that Wallis would be a shocking Best Actress nominee.  If I was thinking by rules and precedents, the obvious pick would be Mirren.  If I was attempting to focus on just this season, I might have to go with Riva.  Yet I’m going with Wallis on little more than a gut feeling that maybe the Academy’s hearts were taken by a precocious tyke.

Check back tomorrow, January 8, to see my final predictions for Best Director!





REVIEW: Amour

25 05 2012

Cannes Film Festival

So often, films about illness and death are milked in a rather maudlin fashion for tears, sentimentality, and catharsis. None of those things interest Michael Haneke though. His latest film, “Amour,” is set almost entirely in an octogenarian couple’s apartment where the wife is slowly headed to the grave after a debilitating stroke. He chronicles the slow descent with patience and control through a deliberate and patient lens that doesn’t dare cut out the messiness, monotony, or misery.

It’s the cinematic equivalent of a still-life as this film moves about as slow as molasses and only amplifies the glacial pace with long shots and even longer takes. While such a technique might infuriate a viewer if it were employed on a different subject matter, those willing to stick with the movie to the end should ultimately admire the tightly controlled and delicately constructed film. At times, it can be fairly difficult to watch … but how hunky-dory do you want movies about death to be? How can you even begin to comprehend the ennui of watching someone slowly lose their grip on life when you are treated to watch from a coolly removed distance?

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What I found to be particularly interesting about the film was how Haneke shoots the film in such a straightforward and unambiguous fashion, an apparent change from the intricate machinery behind his puzzlers “Caché” and “The White Ribbon.” In a way, such a style wouldn’t make sense for “Amour,” but I do think it serves another purpose as well. It makes the audience complacent and allows Haneke to really put an emphatic exclamation point on the end of a cinematic sentence that doesn’t seem to require such an emphatic punctuation.

The performances from French veterans Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant as the ailing wife and her husband are impressive in their control and their naturalism, as is Haneke muse Isabelle Huppert as their grief-stricken daughter. But “Amour” is definitely a Haneke showcase above all, a movie that may seem familiar at first but inextricably bears his stamp.