Wednesday, 21 November 2012


Michael Haneke makes films for adults who want to be treated as intelligent. The commercial function of mainstream cinema to feed docile audiences with pureed cliché and sentiment in the name of entertainment are anathema to him. His films are unashamedly cerebral and severe. They are tough experiences - film making in the “High Morbid Manner”. They press one’s face (at times, with sadistic force) against some aspect of reality, pinning the viewer to the glorious and basest features of his nature, until, tapping the canvas, he is forced to submit to the reality.

Haneke’s interest is the fragility of the human enterprise and an individual’s vulnerability before the demands of living. In the face of violence (Funny Games) or an obsessive relationship (The Piano Teacher), when living under the surveillance camera (Hidden) or the brutality of provincial totalitarianism (The White Ribbon), what moral response is appropriate? His cinematic answers are tenebrous.

Like previous films, Amour is concerned with the vulnerability of the human situation – in this case, the ageing process and the degradations that some of the elderly will face as their bodies and minds begin to fail them. In such circumstances, what does love look like? What does it cost? What, if anything, remains of love?

Haneke places our mortal natures on the dissection table and, using the sharpest visual imaging, picks them clean until the whites of our bones are laid bare. The process of sickness, deterioration and death are recorded with mimetic detail. It is designed to make your skin crawl. “Death subtends life, or underlies life,” the pathologist F Gonzales-Crussi writes, “and the action of time consists in peeling away successive layers so as to render death ever more visible.” The relentless erosion caused by suffering and death appals our Western liberal sensitivities. Our attempts to preserve ourselves from suffering are shown to be futile - no one escapes death. We would prefer decay and corruption to be hidden from public view, behind a hospital ward curtain. But our familiarity with suffering and death also provide us with a brutal clarity about what it is to be alive.

Amour is about an elderly married couple, Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva). They are classical musicians who live in a chic Parisian apartment, designed around their cultural interests: books, paintings and a grand piano. The passage of time has matured and softened their love for each other. This is expressed in small acts of physical tenderness and a stability found in shared experiences. When Anne has a stroke, leaving her paralysed, George chooses to care for her at home. The film follows the decline of her mental and physical faculties over the weeks and months and George’s response to her deterioration.

In Haneke’s film, Funny Games, two delinquent, violent youths invade the home of a family and torture them with “games” that are anything but funny. The theme of invasion of a home occurs again in Amour, where George and Anne’s home is invaded by sickness and death. It is chilling to watch the mechanical bed being fitted in the bedroom, every bedside table top being annexed by boxes of medication and other medical detritus. Their home is violated by these objects and slowly transformed into a mausoleum. Mortality plays funny games with them.

In all of this, Haneke finds moments of tenderness – the calming experience of a caress, the care with which a lovingly prepared meal is spoon fed, the intimacy of sharing childhood memories that cement their love. Old age and a long marriage are portrayed as beautiful things. But Haneke articulates this without sacrificing the psychological complexity of his characters. We see how generosity of intention and violent energies can coexist in the same nature; the fact that individuals can live lonely, even desperate lives, within otherwise mutually sustaining relationships. “You are a monster sometimes. You are also kind” Anne says to George.

Trintignant and Riva perfectly capture the fundamental splits, dualities and twinnings at the heart of George and Anne’s marriage. Both in their eighties, these actors produce performances that are perfectly pitched. By making themselves completely vulnerable before the camera, they make emotional and physical disintegration, sublime. It is deeply moving to see acting of such depth and honesty.

Amour makes so much other film-making look crass and adolescent. It does what all great art does - it tells us something about the ineffable business of being alive. That may not always be something we want to consider, but when we do, we grow and mature in ways that are beyond our imagining. We leave behind consoling deceptions and illusions – we become adults.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master

It feels as if the film ends mid sentence. The words The Master appear as they did at the beginning of the film. The credits roll. It’s an ending but not as an audience normally experiences it. In a packed Leicester Square cinema, the audience sat momentarily frozen, unsure how to respond. There was a communal sense of bewilderment at the beauty and strangeness of what we had just seen.

The friend I went with admitted to getting bored three quarters of the way through and wanted there to be more “ordinary” characters. He described it as “a mood piece...think, late Kandinsky.” I don’t disagree with his reflex review (and the need to find analogies with other artists and artistic forms) but, twenty four hours later and having allowed my initial responses to settle, I think there might be more to say:

1. You are not going to see a better performance on screen this year than Joaquin Pheonix’s war-damaged ex-sailor, Freddie Quell. This is acting of such feral ferocity and rawness that it shreds the “method acting” handbook and takes film performance into another territory. This is not acting, this is possession. In his portrayal of Quell, Pheonix exposes the terrible damage to the soul caused by the lacerating shrapnel of life – a failed romance, the horrors of war, existential rootlessness, Godlessness. Quell is a man in spiritual and psychological tatters.

Pheonix's Quell is a portrait of an outsider – a man to whom life has become something alien and he an alien to it – but without any existential romanticism. Though terribly damaged, Quell clings to a scintilla of hope: that he is loveable, that someone might love him. Your cinema ticket is worth every penny just to see how Pheonix conveys longing and hurt in his wounded-animal eyes.

2. There is not a frame in Paul Thomas Anderson’s film that is not beautiful. It has a numinous quality. Shot in 70mm format and designed with meticulous attention to period detail, The Master definitively answers the question of whether a film can be a work of art with a resolute, “Yes, of course, it can and this is such a work of art.” The Master is an aesthetic treasure that will be looked at, studied and commented on in decades to come.

3. Contrary to internet reports The Master has very little to say about Scientology or the dubious motives of those who found religious movements. The Master is a bromance but not of the comforting sort we have become accustomed to. This is a bromance with barbs and thorns that cut and nick. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, the founder of a religious movement called The Cause, uses Quell as a guinea pig for his experiments in spiritual “processing.” He claims to be able to heal Quell. For the damaged Quell, this promise is attractive. He sees Lancaster Dodd’s new religion as the way to restore some sort of psychic stability in his life. This is not a friendship based on affection but one based on the different needs of the two men. The need of the charlatan to believe his own lies and to have his lies believed. The need of the outsider to find a way inside the city walls. The Master is an oblique study in neediness.

4. There are no simple narrative arcs or easily comprehensible character motivations. The film is a frustrating watch and for this reason comes close to reality as we experience it, where so much is hidden from our immediate understanding and slips our conceptual grasp. So much of who we are remains a mystery, at once, fascinating and terrifying. If people find The Master boring and frustrating, it is because, in one sense, it is exactly that. Anderson refuses to pander to the audience’s need for the security of conventional story-telling. Instead, he delivers something that is closer to a parable or tone poem where depths of meaning are released with every viewing.

5. Why should you go and see The Master? Joaquin Pheonix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and the uncompromising originality of the writer-director, Paul Thomas Anderson.