Thursday, 29 November 2012

Amour - Michael Haneke (2012)

  1. Amour is a really miserable way to spend a couple of hours, brought to you by Viennese dungeon-master Michael Haneke.
  2. Peter Bradshaw loves Haneke. Philip French loves Haneke. Dave Calhoun loves Haneke. But it's ok for you not to love Michael Haneke. In fact, it's quite reasonable to regard Michael Haneke as a kind of large-scale sadist who gets his kicks from making his audiences uncomfortable.
  3. Of course, there's nothing wrong with sadism, or indeed masochism, if that's what makes your clock tick. But you do sort of have to be in the mood. And if you happen not to be it's totally not your fault.
  4. It's a commonplace mistake to assume an association between the bleak and the meaningful. Some true things are bleak: for instance, we are all going to die, and a lot of us are going to have to get old first. But not all bleak things are true. In fact some things are made bleak deliberately and artificially - like films about old people getting on and off the toilet and refusing to be spoonfed apple sauce in the hope that their partner will just let them die.
  5. Haneke achieves his stated aim of discomfiting the audience in at least three ways.  The first is visual. He's always shooting down corridors or through doorways. Characters negotiate spaces awkwardly, or silently contest the spaces between each other, or between us and them. Apart from the very first (rather pretentious) shot of the auditorium, all the action of Amour takes place within the confines of the couple's flat. We, the viewers, are the intruders. Haneke never lets you forget that you're nothing but a filthy little voyeur who likes to watch an old lady being given a rough sponge bath, and would really prefer it if her nurse would only get out of the way so you could see everything.
  6. The second technique he uses is to deny either his characters or their stories the coherence that Hollywood has taught us to expect. So, for instance, a daughter might suddenly start to sexually molest her mother. Or an old man caring for his terminally ill wife might suddenly slap her. 'We are all capable of anything under the right circumstances' says Haneke, and being Austrian, well he might. In this film, as in Cache or The White Ribbon, the ending is ambiguous. You are denied satisfaction. And that's all you deserve, because you're a nasty little bourgeois shit, who wants things to turn out nice every time.
  7. The third method he uses to make all those awful perverts in the audience writhe in agony is showing them pictures of people doing horrible things to each other. Haneke's films are punctuated by violence, but the violence is always shot in such a way as to seem commonplace. The camera doesn't move. The violent event is always sudden, bland and narratively dysfunctional. Haneke claims this is a means of denying violence its status as pop confection. The absence of dynamism produces impassivity, it makes you feel as though you're just sitting there watching - which of course you are. His fixed shot is a finger pointed at the viewer's own appetite for the pain of others. Because, don't forget, you're nothing but a filthy, voyeursitic, bourgeois sadist pervert. SAY IT!
  8. So why this need to punish the audience, who, after all, were only looking for a good time? What have we done to deserve this? Well apparently it was all our fault for watching Top Gun.  Haneke claims that his films are a reaction to mainstream cinema, with its attempt to manipulate the view into trite sentiments and moral conclusions. He has memorably said he wants to 'rape the viewer into independence' which is a totally weird thing to think you could do. You don't have to make people miserable to make them think. You certainly don't have to rape them. David Lynch manages to confound his audiences expectations, whilst also introducing some light and shade into his films. Kubrick's worldview was bleak, but he knew how to make you feel more than one thing.
  9. So Haneke sets out to trap us, but ironically he thinks he's doing it in order to set us free.* Maybe he's not unaware of this paradox. Consider how, in this film, an act of smothering might also be a release.
  10. Of course, the real paradox here is that the people who watch Haneke's films aren't the same people who watch Top Gun and swallow it whole. He's actually offering a peculiar product for a very rarified form of cinema-goer. The kind that feels bad about all the times they willingly consented to the charms of Hollywood. In a way, the film's title is a nasty joke at the expense of our expectations of film - we reach for the lolly, and instead we get the lash. Watching this movie is a kind of a punishment, but it's the kind of punishment you pay for. And there is nothing  more wholesome about that than any other kind of cinema.
*In fact Haneke is only half Austrian. But still.