Category Archives: Foreign Films

The Subtlety of Loss

Film review of Michael Haneke’s “Amour” (France, 2012)


Georges: “Please. Don’t feel guilty. What if this were me?”

If you believe film should be an experience that illuminates, probes, and reflects life, “Amour” is the greatest film of 2012. Michael Haneke, once again gracefully unconcerned with entertaining and pleasing the audience, allows the film to exist as an experience rather than a spectacle. Consequently, the film is like life: it’s not often satisfying, it meanders, it’s ambiguous, it’s beautiful, it’s both divisive and unifying, and it will break your heart.

As the narrative begins, we find ourselves in a theater. In one extended wide shot, we observe the patrons finding their seats, collectively forming an audience. The lights dim. The audience is asked to silence their mobile phones. Hushed anticipation pervades the space. Intermittently, someone coughs, sniffles, or rustles. Then, someone coughs, sniffles, or rustles in the seat behind you, and the cinematic architecture of reflection Haneke has crafted is illuminated. Haneke engages us in this uncanny mirror experience to prime us for “Amour”: It’s a film about life and death, and, as such, you’re required to give yourself entirely to an experience of painful—but necessary—reflection.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, in an Oscar-worthy performance) are elderly and retired. We know all we need to know about their past: they’ve had fulfilling, passionate careers in music, and now they live in a labyrinthine apartment in Paris, which—save for the first scene at the concert—is the only setting of the film. One morning, at breakfast, Anne seems to black out. Georges, who at first thinks Anne is playing a practical joke, soon learns that he’s witnessed the precipice of a very long decline. Anne is going to die, and George’s inner strength and devotion to her will be tested as he endeavors to help her do it.

Two weeks before I saw “Amour,” my own grandmother died. The day before she died, I lay with her in bed as her body and mind shut down. Like Anne, my grandmother knew she was going to die, but what she didn’t know were the excruciating “how’s”: how long the process would take, or how much she would suffer. The first time Anne speaks of her death, it’s in the form of an order. It’s directed at Georges, and it clearly states never to take her back to the hospital. That’s exactly the order my grandmother gave. “Amour” and life fused in that moment, and, cognizant of why we bother to create art at all, I gave myself entirely to the film.

In a long history of writers and artists struggling with “the ultimate meaning to which all stories refer: the continuity of life, the inevitability of death (Italo Calvino),” Haneke brings us a masterpiece that’s glaringly new and vital. “Amour” is a harrowing portrait of senescence that breathes with you. It asks all the hard questions about life, death, and love in between. As the landscape of Georges and Anne’s lives shifts to uncover new meanings of intimacy, empathy, and coping, we’re shifting, too. From “Cache” and “The White Ribbon,” we knew Haneke had the requisite audacity to tackle raw themes cinematically, but what we learn from “Amour” is that he has mastered the ability for which all filmmakers strive: the art of making the specific the universal.

Haneke achieves this through subtlety. It reigns throughout his oeuvre, but it peaks in “Amour.” When a self-centered, cold, detached middle-aged woman comes to visit the apartment, we observe a long, detailed conversation about Anne’s health. Not only until Georges, speaking to the woman, refers to Anne as “your mother,” do we realize we’ve met the couple’s only child, Eva (Isabelle Huppert). Haneke employs this kind of subtlety to an effect that humanizes the characters and circumvents the maudlin. Some critics have mistaken Haneke’s subtlety for sterility, or have interpreted it as circumlocution in fleshing out the narrative and relationship within. These answers, however, seem to be too easy; only a lethargic audience unwilling to engage with the film entirely would complain of too little. The space Haneke gives us to let “Amour” marinate is what makes it so uncomfortable to watch, but ultimately so rewarding. Haneke doesn’t shy from depicting Anne’s loss of dignity; we’re there with Georges. We watch Anne circle back to childhood as language disintegrates and she rapid-fires through memory circuits, uttering “Mommy,” struggling for coherence in expression, then reverting to echolalia. We experience Georges’ frustration as he explains to his daughter that second opinions are no longer relevant, and that there’s no better way to do this than what’s currently being done. We sit with Georges in the white light of his apartment, in the long takes, in the wide shots, and we absorb and internalize because Haneke has given us the gift of space.

In fact, the most poignant moment of the film could have been the most maudlin in other, less subtle, hands. Suspended in a silence that becomes increasingly their reality, Anne and Georges sit at the table. Anne then asks Georges for the photo album. He’s apprehensive—perhaps afraid of the maudlin himself—but ultimately retrieves it. Anne is mesmerized by this photographic narrative of her life. She flips through. “It’s beautiful,” she says, finally. “What?” says Georges. Anne: “Life. So long.” This is devastating for us, because, during the silence Haneke afforded us while Anne peruses the album, we’ve been imagining our own life and its many stages, trials, tribulations, desires, and loves. We’ve been flipping through our own photo albums, contemplating our own mortality, wondering if life really is that long, or if it will feel that way when we’re 85, and whether we’ll ever be ready to let it go.

My grandmother stopped answering the phone when she learned her death was imminent. Members of family and extended family had previously deemed her, in jest, the yenta (Yiddish: old gossip), as the home phone was her principal accessory in her later years. Yet suddenly she wouldn’t return a single call; she failed even to pick up the phone to speak with her closest friend of eighty years, who would not be able to visit. Though faraway friends and relatives oscillated between confusion and indignation, no one in the immediate family asked her for reasons. We knew why. “Your concern is of no use to me,” Georges tells his daughter after being admonished for failing to return her frantic calls. Death, in old age, is a quiet guest. You have to sit with it; you accept it into your home, first in the form of a hospital bed or a wheelchair, then in other, more insidious forms, such as a gradual loss of appetite. To maintain grace and strength in the face of mortality, you can’t be harried with sympathy and condolence. The world, having been a very large place while you were living in it, turns insular. When Heidegger wrote, “death is in each case mine,” he meant that death is the only thing in life that a person must face alone. It is the loneliest thing in the world, and both my grandmother and Georges accepted it that way. Haneke has crafted an indelible experience. In “Amour,” we interact with the loneliest truth of life, but we emerge from the theater feeling less alone for having lived.

In her last coherent moments, Anne turns to engage with her inner life, which she, as everyone, must reconcile with human existence. This is depicted in long insert shots of historical paintings and landscapes hanging in the couple’s apartment. It is also depicted in a moment late at night when, in quiet desperation and restrained fear, Anne asks Georges to bring her a book. Up until the very night she died, my grandmother was reading. Just as books inaugurate the child into the world and its history, books guide the elderly through their voyage out of it.

After Anne dies, a pigeon flies into the house. Georges’ insular world has been invaded, and he stares at the pigeon as if it were a foreign object. Eventually, he decides to do away with it, and what ensues is the physical manifestation of the struggle to concede to Anne’s death. In the end, he lets the pigeon go.


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Existential Indulgence

Film review of Anne Emond’s “Nuit #1” / “Night #1” (Canada, 2012)

Clara, on walking home at 5AM after a one-night stand: “I look at the joggers and think, ‘I’m not like you. I just had sex with a stranger.'”

Clara and Nikolai meet at a rave. Like animals separated from the pack, they can smell the loneliness and despair on one another’s flesh, and the overwhelming force of the desire to have a connection draws them together. They return to Nikolai’s apartment for a hungry sexual experience that begins with Nikolai’s request for Clara’s name and concludes with an awkward hesitancy to cuddle… because, after all, they are strangers.

But this is no typical one-night stand. When Clara, unable to sleep, sneaks out of Nikolai’s apartment, Nikolai awakes and chases after her, ushering her back inside. He then catapults into a tirade about the modern state of relationships, chiding Clara for being a modern woman (“They’re just like men!”) and setting the stage for what will become a very long night of understandings, misunderstandings, emotional monologues, harrowing confessions, cigarette smoking, and ultimately a meaningful connection.

Clara and Nikolai are, by normalizing societal standards, two very broken people. Clara has sex with a new man–sometimes multiple new men, sometimes at once–every weekend, does copious amounts of drugs, confesses to being “completely empty inside,” and is self-loathing to the utmost degree. Nikolai, in turn, cannot hold down a single job, has fruitless ambitions of becoming the next great artist, is self-sabotaging, irreverent, and mistreats women without a flinch (though, to be fair, he claims he’s never once hit a woman). In brief, the characters are invariably fault-ridden. Writer/director Anne Emond seems to have taken Clara and Nikolai to a level of caricature in order to illuminate certain aspects of the modern condition. Of every ten statements about themselves that Clara or Nikolai make, you’ll be able to relate to one. Though nine of them may alienate you and cause you to judge Clara or Nikolai harshly, that outstanding one statement will chill you to the bone. Thus, despite some of their arguably unlikeable or unsympathetic characteristics, there are parts of Clara and Nikolai that will resonate with you. This will facilitate a distressing kind of self-reflection that, if anything, makes the viewing of Nuit #1 ultimately worthwhile.

On the surface, Nuit #1 is a study of a one-night stand. Anne Emond’s intentions, however, are an existential exploration of interpersonal connection, the modern condition, and the universal search for meaning. Whether or not she achieves this fully is up for debate. The film comes together in pieces rather than as a comprehensive work in and of itself. The pieces: the rare but momentous points of connection between you and Clara or Nikolai, the inconsistently realistic poetic monologues, the exaggerated but heartfelt depiction of two lost souls. Slightly undermining these strong moments is a pervasive sense of inconsistency. For example, Emond plays with gender role reversal at the beginning (Clara leaves the apartment in the middle of the night without saying goodbye; Nikolai becomes emotionally upset), but soon reverts to painful stereotypes (Nikolai talks about having callously left a girl after an abortion; Nikolai has testosterone-motivated anger issues; Clara has an emotional breakdown and is the only one of the two who does any sobbing; Clara is forgiving of Nikolai’s glaring, unrelenting red flags, taking on all of Nikolai’s burdens before eventually unloading her own). In the same vein, the existential undertones of the film straddle a thin line between insightful and indulgent. Clara and Nikolai, while both capable of articulating pertinent existential dilemmas, also seem to have a notable lack of agency and tend toward self-victimization, often at the expense of others. They view their respective existential crises from a fatalistic vantage point, which detracts from the film’s statements. This is somewhat forgivable, though, because the film’s conclusion leaves us with a sense that connection is possible with the Other: Clara and Nikolai, though they can never understand one another fully, have something real together, and they’re probably going to fight to keep it alive.

“You’re a little bit crazy,” Nikolai initially says to Clara, “but it’s not at all uninteresting.” This, ultimately, is how Nuit #1 plays: a little bit crazy (and a lot indulgent), but not at all uninteresting.


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Noble Italian Noir

Film review of Giuseppe Capotondi’s “The Double Hour” (Italy, 2009)

Recall the searing feeling of betrayal that encompasses the moment you find out that someone is not at all the person you know him or her to be. There’s the upheaval of all the groundwork you’ve lain with this person, the feeling of having been exploited, and ultimately—most painfully—the newfound distrust in your own perception of reality. The Double Hour sustains these feelings for a grueling 95 minutes, serving the worst kind of betrayal on a silver platter—and it tastes great.

From the initial scene, Kseniya, our protagonist, draws us into her vulnerability. She is a poor hotel maid from Slovenia serving Italy’s elite, and her existence is permeated with an overwhelming loneliness. She’s barely sleepwalking through the routines that comprise her days, but there’s something about her that drives her forward. This is evident in the distracted silences that sometimes consume her while conversing with others, the intensity of her eyes, and the swiftness of her movements despite her dreary reality. Kseniya is captivating: immediately she holds hostage not only our attention, but also our sympathy. Thus, when Kseniya meets a man for whom she genuinely seems to care, survives a horrifically traumatic experience that leaves him dead, and has to return to her previous lifestyle more alone than ever, we feel for her. This, however, is when first-time director Giuseppe Capotondi begins to wreak beautifully constructed cinematic havoc. Is Kseniya becoming schizophrenic in the aftermath of the trauma? Is she the victim of an intricate web of secrets and lies that threaten to entwine her irrevocably? Or is there some knowledge of which we are being deprived? The plot soon becomes inscrutable; narrative threads dissolve into nonlinear, surreal scenes that may or may not reflect reality. Despite the fact that we’re inside her head, we have no idea whether or not Kseniya’s depiction of reality is to be trusted. Still, she continues to elicit emotion within us, swallowing us into the vortex of her cryptic world.

Claustrophobic cinematography and an expansive, multifaceted soundscape lay the foundation for this incredibly innovative, genre-bending Italian film. The Double Hour shamelessly toys with audience expectation and ultimately leaves us with that searing feeling of betrayal that is so familiar in life yet so rarely explored in cinema. Both entertaining and thought provoking, The Double Hour is a commendable first effort for Capotondi, which will inevitably propel him into further explorations of untouched cinematic territory.

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A Portrait of Athens

Film review of Argyris Papadimitropoulos and Jan Vogel’s “Wasted Youth” (Greece, 2011)

Wasted Youth more often feels like a borderline documentary than a narrative drama. The film takes a bold voyeuristic approach in chronicling a day in the lives of two people: a young teenage boy whose only escape from nihilism is his passion for skateboarding, and a middle-aged police officer who suffers from a bleak depression. In theory, these two characters have the ability to captivate an audience. However, because the storyline that they navigate is thin and the pace of the film itself is unrelievedly slow, the dramatic elements rarely break the surface. It becomes difficult to emotionally engage with the characters because the events of their lives are quotidian in a manner that feels superfluous and the conversations often devoid of meaning. In this manner, the film is distancing. The intimacy of the documentary approach somehow works against the characters in Wasted Youth, presenting them as specimens rather than people. As a result, neither empathy for the characters nor dramatic tension is sustained well enough to propel the audience into the climax, which is jarring and ultimately feels undeserved.

The film is successful not in its dramatic elements, its narrative, or its characters, but in its embodiment of a mood. Though I have never visited Athens, after watching this film I feel that I have. The gritty texture of a city in hard times comes through beautifully. In conjunction with this mood, the film also succeeds in conveying a very strong style. Through the realism inherent in the hand-held cinematography and natural lighting, a portrait of a struggling Athens in the midst of a heat wave that breeds insanity and discontent emerges. In the end, the character that most resounded with me was not the teenager or the cop; it was Athens itself. 

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History Buried Under Rubble

Film review of Lu Chuan’s “City of Life and Death” (China, 2009)

The words “war cinema” do not bode well with me. Bloodshed in most war films, in my opinion, encompasses an inaccurate portrayal of heroism and the glorified grandeur of violence in the service of one’s country. Rarely am I taken to empathize with a soldier who perpetrates violent crimes—even in the landscape of war, where such empathy is not only condoned but also expected. Needless to say, I am not easily enthralled with, nor do I readily respect, war films.

This said, “The City of Life and Death” is a masterpiece in war cinema. In a harrowing and unflinching manner, it chronicles the Rape of Nanking with startling aesthetic magnificence and a keen eye toward moral indiscretion and the vacillation of the ethical human condition. In this film, normal people violently torture, rape, and execute other normal people. This occurs often horrifyingly casually, sometimes with passionate malevolence, and rarely with a person’s ability to recognize and contemplate the horrors they are inflicting upon their own kind.

The film operates on a factual basis. It begins with the Japanese Imperial Army invasion of Nanking. The Japanese are ruthless, destroying the city in its entirety, pillaging everything in their paths. The first fifteen minutes of the film are dizzying in their realistically chaotic and disorienting depiction of the front lines of warfare. Grenades are thrown, fires are ignited, soldiers engage in man-to-man combat with swords and guns alike. When the Japanese decide they have succeeded in overtaking the then-capital of China, they begin their mass murder scheme. With no apparent discretion or order, the people of Nanking—women and children included—are drowned, burned alive, buried alive, shot execution-style, and beaten to death. Bodies lay strewn all over the conquered city, some tied to posts, some hanging from street lamps, and others in the street left to be trampled upon by the Japanese soldiers. Most of the Chinese civilians and soldiers are left for dead, though those that do survive are given the promise of a safe zone in a refugee camp run by a German Nazi, Mr. Rabe, his assistant, Mr. Tang, and an American schoolteacher, Ms. Vautrin (all based on real people whose diaries and letters were the basis of their film characterizations). The safe zone, however, is breached when the Japanese soldiers become bored and consistently break into the camp to rape women and young girls. [To encourage viewing of this film, the rest of the synopsis has been omitted.]

Where graphic violence is concerned, we are not spared. Lu Chuan presents us with a heartbreakingly honest portrayal of the events that transpired in Nanking, weaving human sentiment into a story seemingly devoid of humanity through the viewpoints of both perpetrators and victims. Although the imagery of the atrocious violence is lacerating to the core, Chuan consistently reminds us that it is art we are experiencing; he hopes that it is through this art form that we will absorb and grapple with the indelible events of recent history. Undoubtedly he succeeds: shot in austere black and white with gritty lighting schemes, the artistry here is delectable. Acute attention to framing and composition is evident, remarkably even throughout the most chaotic scenes of warfare.

Chuan circumvents a common misstep in war cinema by allowing us to become privy to the psychological states of nearly all of the main characters rather than leaving us to infer the condition of their inner landscape. In this way, we are able to assume a holistic perspective on the human elements of war. All of the characters undergo notable shifts throughout the film, rendering them three-dimensional people rather than puppets in a war story. War heroism is also realistically portrayed here; the heroes are those who bring palpable empathy and human investment into the front lines, combatting the forces of dehumanization often to a tragic end.

With City of Life and Death, Chuan has embarked on a grandiose and assiduous attempt to pay homage to a transgression in history. Just as the Rape of Nanking should not be forgotten, Chuan’s commendable efforts in this film should not be overlooked.

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Let Feminism Rain

Film review of Agnès Jaoui’s “Let it Rain” (France, 2008)

What’s interesting about this film—as well as this film review, for that matter—is that you won’t be reading it if you detest the word “feminist.” That is, if you abhor women with strong spines or have misconceptions about what feminism entails. If you identify with the aforementioned, just as you wouldn’t see a film starring Simone de Beauvoir, you wouldn’t see this one. Which is a shame, really, because all of the characters in “Let it Rain” think like you do—caveman-style, if you will—save for one. This notion is the real basis for the film: Most people, even the so-called liberal upper class, still either don’t understand or don’t advocate for what it means to be a feminist.

Agathe Villanova, a successful French author and aspiring politician, holds down the fort as the only self-identified feminist in the film. When approached by an unlikely pair of documentarians—Michel, a quirky, washed-up television reporter, and his protégé Karim, a young filmmaker with dreams he is unsure of how to realize—Agathe agrees to take part in a documentary they are filming about successful women. Right off the bat she is incredulous, noting (albeit wisely) that any documentary with such a demeaning title would inevitably manifest as a pitiful minority film. Regardless, she agrees, and immediately opinions about her are formed. Karim, taking the position of the typical man of today, immediately has a hard time describing Villanova, an atypically spoken-minded strong woman, as “nice;” he skirts around the words such as “overbearing” and “harsh” (though, to be noted, she is no more harsh than the average American male) until finally deciding upon “domineering” as the least offensive word to use with regard to her feminist nature. Michel, on the other hand, is less off-put by Villanova’s character than perplexed; he doesn’t understand why some women are more decision-oriented and durable than others. “So, should men bear children now?” Michel asks Agathe during an interview for the doc. This poses two interesting angles to the contemporary feminist debate: the one who is contemptuous and the one who just doesn’t get it.

For Villanova, the male gaze views a woman with power as a scary breed of beast. Agathe asks to be an equal but is met with resentment and is branded in her political career as a woman rather than a politician (“She shouldn’t be so sensitive if she wants to go into politics,” Michel pronounces after Agathe becomes offended by derogatory insinuations about her gender). She is met with opposition as well from the world of traditional women, most notably when her childhood housekeeper tells Agathe the only way for a woman to be happy is to be validated by a man. This is perplexing for Agathe, particularly because she struggles with a nonconformist relationship with her own lover in which she makes it clear, despite his wishes, that she will not marry him nor bear his children. For her, this is equality: the ability to lead a life marked by independence and full potential for personal growth. Yet however outwardly steadfast she appears in this way of life, inwardly she finds herself longing for security and stability.

Arguably the most fascinating and nuanced relationship in the film occurs between Agathe and her sister, Florence, who is married with children. “You’re so different from your sister,” Michel remarks to Agathe, and she nods in concurrence. “Yes, she was always the fragile one,” sighs Agathe. “How convenient to be fragile.” Florence, meanwhile, takes many opportunities amid bouts of emotional outburst to muse about how “liberated” she feels, while Agathe maintains the requisite politician front and painfully harbors her sentiments within carefully constructed confines. Which tactic, we are asked to consider, is really more convenient? Or, rather, which tactic is more convenient for a woman?

Alas, the modern woman is all too familiar with the word “compromise.” We are constantly compromising in relationships, most of us dealing with unbalanced power structures and double standards. We’re also compromising in the workplace, navigating expectations of submissiveness. The most heated compromise, however, lies in the realm of childbearing. The world as it is tells us we can’t have it all. Agathe is plagued by this, though she allays her uncertainty by settling under a veneer of assuredness. Intermittently, however, we see this semblance quiver with doubt and we wonder if Agathe really does know what she wants.

Director Agnès Jaoui plucks a concerto of strings to the tune of a cacophonous feminism exploration. In one of my favorite scenes, the trifecta takes a hike through the mountains of Southern France in search of an idyllic shot for one of the documentary interviews. The interview, however, is rudely interrupted by bleating sheep and an equipmental mishap, thus cannot be conducted. Embittered and late for a public appearance, Agathe leads the two disgruntled men back down the mountain. Agathe walks in front, exuding palpable power, while the two men follow behind her, escorted by the pack of sheep. Here, Jaoui asserts her overarching sentiment, highlighting a moment when two self-proclaimed masculine men follow literally like sheep behind the most well-adjusted intellectual force among them: a woman.

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