Review: Amour

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AmourThe Pitch: Love is…

The Review: Michael Haneke is one of those directors from whom the label auteur clearly applies; he’s probably one of that select band that could become an adjective, and any film given that description will give the viewer a clear idea of what to expect; moral ambiguity, a desire to get the viewer to experience a strong reaction, a dissection of the art of cinema itself, with a tendency to staccato bursts of violence and often an alienating coldness. Haneke’s 2009 film, The White Ribbon, picked up the Palme D’Or at Cannes and gained more affection that most of his previous films, based in no small part on the sympathetic central characters and even more surprising bursts of tenderness. For his latest film (picking up his second award on La Croisette), Haneke again takes things to extremes, although this time it’s that most human experience that he’s keen to push to its limit.

His real master stroke here is in the casting. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva have both had long, colorful and reasonably distinguished careers but now carry the heft of their actual years (Trintignant takes his first part in about a decade at 81; Riva, while still working regularly, is now 85). Not only do they convincingly portray two lives being lived to their fullest and latest extremes, but they have a believable chemistry that makes their portrayal of a couple being driven apart by the onset of their years all the more poignant. There’s also quality in the supporting cast, not least from Isabelle Huppert as the frustrated daughter seemingly unable do anything but stand at the sidelines and watch on helplessly.

What plays out is the story of the end of this couple’s relationship, at a time when their love for each other seems to be stronger than ever, almost painfully so. Although we’re left in no doubt as to the eventual outcome by the first scene, the initial scenes of general life and affection from Trintignant and Riva make it all the more harrowing when Riva first suffers her stroke, and from then on the depiction of life’s difficulties is about as honest as you could imagine. From there, the performances diverge with Riva required more to show the ravages on the body of old age, while Trintignant must bear the burden of her afflictions mentally and spiritually. Both performances are of the highest order and between them, Anne and Georges (a regular Haneke touch) will put you through the emotional wringer.

So to the director himself, and Michael Haneke’s using a few other regular tricks here, including a wide shot in a theatre early on with the characters almost lost in the background (but for their age, they’d be completely invisible). As always, every single detail is meticulously planned and fine tuned, with even the title coming over as very deliberate (Amour, lacking the usual French definitive article of the more romantic sounding L’Amour). Generally, he keeps the direction slow and deliberate, restricting the surprises to a dream sequence and a visit from a pigeon later on. But in terms of Haneke’s achievement, Amour successfully encapsulates the devastation of the passage of time and the inevitability of old age, and it feels almost churlish to say that’s all it does, lacking slightly some of the complex insights or more deliberate provocation of Haneke’s other works. There’s certainly a purity and simplicity in terms of the insight to the human condition in comparison to the other best works of Haneke, but odd details (such as the dream sequence) jar due to the deep-seated reality of what surrounds them, and when the ending comes it doesn’t quite feel like the true gut-punch it should, drenched in the inevitability of both its own film maker and the narrative course it’s taken. Still another significant achievement in the career of Michael Haneke, and confirmation that a heart does beat within his chest after all, even if it has a darkness to it.

Why see it at the cinema: Haneke’s works are designed to be seen in the cinema, from the first shot after the credits to the intensity of the ending, so that’s where you need to be to commit yourself fully.

The Score: 9/10

Review: Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2

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The Pitch: Where were we again? Oh yes, Horcruxes 3, Hallows 2 (before extra time).

The Review: So, it’s all come down to this. Ten years it’s taken, but the boy wizard has grown up and now must become a man, as his epic quest to defeat Voldemort must come to a climax. Of course, it could be six months since you saw Part 1, and that in itself wasn’t really the start of the end of the story. For that we have to look back to film number six, where we learned of the horcruxes and the fact that destroying them was essential to destroying He-Who-Has-His-Nose-Removed-In-Post-Production. Somehow, the first part of the final film not only managed just to turn up one more horcrux, but also featured J.K. Rowling’s attempt to achieve the maximum number of MacGuffins in one film as the Deathly Hallows were also introduced. If you’ve somehow forgotten all of this before going in, then good luck keeping up. You’re going to need it.

The biggest stumbling block to the flow of events is the nature of where the split took place. While the climactic events of Part 1 may have been a reasonably dramatic ending, they have resulted in a slightly fractured Part 2, which consists of two parts. The first is a trip to Gringott’s bank on the search for the next horcrux, and then the trail leads back, somewhat inevitably, to Hogwarts, where events come to a head and Voldemort and his cronies lay siege to an increasingly beleaguered staff and students. As you would expect with such an epic saga, this is where everything has to come to a head, but unlike your Star Wars or your Lord Of The Rings, where the main cast have been split into a number of different groups and increasing amounts of cross-cutting are required to keep up with events, we by and large follow the central trio as they navigate through events, and so there are never more than two real narrative strands going on.

There’s an unfortunate side-effect of this; as ever, it’s driven initially by the book’s choices and consequently there’s a lot that happens off screen in the last half of the movie. Whole swathes of characters who’ve had significant screen time in the previous chapters get blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em cameos here, some not even getting a line, and while there’s more death here of known characters than either Lucas or Jackson’s epics in their respective final chapters, almost all of it here happens off screen, and largely robs it of feeling – a clearer distinction between book and screen here, and just a little more division of focus in the right places, might have paid great dividends. The plot also takes no prisoners, so if you don’t remember your basics, like the names of the four school houses, then a lot of this will just be short people running around waving sticks at each other. The literary slavishness also extends to the epilogue; reports say they filmed it twice, but to be honest they could have filmed it a thousand times and it would never have been anything other than laughable.

But these are not huge faults, and the overall tone is kept on a tight leash; from the opening bank raid, the tension is ratcheted up, the mood is dark and the stakes are high, and there’s a suitably epic feel to scenes at Hogwarts that even surpasses the sweeping vistas of Prisoner Of Azkaban. But high stakes also require high acting, and as good as Radcliffe, Watson and Grint have become, their best moments are in earlier films. The highlights are the wonderful Ralph Fiennes, who never feels anything less than pure evil and wraps his tongue around his lines without ever making it feel pantomime, and Alan Rickman, who has excelled as Severus Snape right throughout the series and does some of his best, and most understated work, here as his true nature and motives finally become apparent. All in all a largely satisfying end to a mixed saga, but let’s hope J.K. Rowling, and Warner Brothers, leave well enough alone now, sleeping on their giant piles of cash.

Why see it at the cinema: Probably the second best of the series, the epic scope and scale of destruction wrought deserves a trip to the cinema – and it might be the last chance you get to see Potter on the big screen, outside that inevitable 25th anniversary re-release with added elves.

Why see it in 3D: There have been complaints that it’s dark and murky, but if you take the 3D glasses off you realise how much they’ve upped the light levels to compensate for the effect of the glasses. Most of the “in your face” moments happen early on, so it’s by no means essential to see this in 3D.

The Score: 7/10

Cambridge Film Festival Review: Enter The Void

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The Pitch: Ghost Trainspotting.

The Review: Gaspar Noé is a moviemaker who is not unaccustomed to controversy. But when your movies feature such extremes of human behaviour, with violence and immorality not uncommon, then you’d be a little disappointed not to generate some controversy. So in theory we should know what to expect from his latest, except no-one could be prepared for the assault on the senses that Noé has lined up, and that’s just the opening credits, a whirling flash of neon that will likely cause most viewers to develop either epilepsy, ADHD or both.

Once your mind has adjusted to the shock, we’re taken down several notches, for Enter The Void is a trip – one long trip in the mind of a drug-dealing teenager called Oscar, who’s wound up in Tokyo and is now deep into the drug culture and gets high the moment we see him. Events are played out from his first person perspective, but when Oscar is seemingly double crossed by a friend, he’s shot and killed. For mere mortal movies, this would be a problem, but this is merely the start of Oscar’s trip, as he then views the lives of those around him from his unique out-of-body perspective.

Thankfully, the script had shoe-horned in numerous references to a ‘Tibetan Book Of The Dead’ which conveniently describes the events to come – Tibetans are the go-to guys on death and the afterlife, it seems, as they’ve laid out a three act structure which Oscar conveniently follows, broadly consisting of floaty head trip, life flashing before your eyes and search for meaning in existence. We swap between the first and third person in perspective, but we are Oscar for the duration. This does make Enter The Void something to be experienced rather than enjoyed from a narrative perspective, but Noé remains a supreme visual stylist and there’s enough invention and trickery on display here to fuel a dozen smaller movies.

On the positive side this is a visual feast, ranging from the fractal dreamscapes of the initial trip to the visceral gut-punches of some later sequences – nothing quite at the level of Irreversible, but there are still some indelible moments and a couple of recurring motifs that will leave a firm impression. However, this is counterbalanced by the early heavy-handedness of the script, the generally unexceptional quality of the acting but more than anything else by the length. There’s a couple of versions around and I was “lucky” enough to see the longer – even the shorter, currently checking in at around two hours twenty, would be at least twenty minutes too long. It’s probably the last section that dwells too long, but frankly the best drug to make it through this would be a strong dose of caffeine. Noé’s provocative style continues, but on this evidence it’s as likely to prompt frustration as anything.

Why see it at the cinema: If you have any intention of seeing this, then you absolutely must see it inside a cinema. From the opening credits, you have to completely immerse yourself in the experience to give it any chance, and unless you have a 200 inch home cinema, there’s only one way to do that.

The Score: 6/10