Amour (2012)

Amour (2012) movie poster

director Michael Haneke
viewed: 12/25/2013

Last year’s Best Foriegn Film at the Oscars, Michael Haneke’s Amour, really took me a while to get around to seeing.  I like Hanake’s films.  I think he is one of the more interesting active directors in the world, but this one, the story of an octogenarian couple dealing with the declining health of one of them…well, that’s probably a hard sell just about anywhere.

I think Hanake is interesting not just because his films are interesting and that he selects such challenging material for his work but that what can be lost sometimes in looking at his films and dealing with the content or ideas in his films, it’s easy to forget that he’s quite the maestro.  I think I noted in regarding Funny Games (1997) that he has the ability to manage a viewer’s attention like Alfred Hitchcock but overall, he’s not simply interested in leading a viewer through narrative, developing cinematic pleasure.  He’s sort of the opposite, actively trying to develop cinematic discomfort.

I was thinking to myself at one point during Amour that it would have been interesting to see Haneke embrace genre, maybe doing a more straight up horror film (he did sort of do a science fiction film in 2003’s Time of the Wolf.)  But then I realized that all of Haneke’s films are horror films in a way.  The horrors are variant but are deeply ingrained throughout.

I suppose, given the title of the film, Amour, that the focus of the film can be the love between this man and wife, his dedication to caring for her, for doing her will (not forcing her to hospital or hospice), and even the inevitable euthanasia.  It does end with a dream-like departure together and it’s at least in part a love story.

It’s also a horror story, for the woman undergoing the strokes, loss of her physical self-control, shame, embarrassment, for her husband who has to see her suffer through all of this and empathize, but for all of us to know that this is to come for our parents or grandparents, ourselves.   This is the slow degradation of death, the body when it stops operating as it should, for us, for our loved ones, the greatest of indignities and suffering.  We should all be so lucky to have someone to put us out of our misery.

Much has been made of the performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as the elderly couple.  They are good.  The film is good.  It has an integrity to it and a beauty to it, but it’s also a slog of sorts.  Putting yourself through that.   And for all of the titular “love” evoked, it left me still detached and outside.

I didn’t love Amour.

The White Ribbon

The White Ribbon (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Michael Haneke
viewed: 01/26/10 at Embarcadero Center Cinema, SF, CA

Winner of the Palme D’or at Cannes last year, Michael Haneke’s film, The White Ribbon, filmed in black-and-white, is a parable-like tale of some of the dark sides of human nature.  Namely, Haneke considers it a story about Fascism, or the elements therein, which gave rise to opportunity for Fascism to come to the fore in early 20th century Europe, poised as the story is on the brink of WWI.

But it’s not a story of the big events, but the smaller, human events in a northern German farming village and situated around a series of bizarre crimes which trouble the community, yet never really find true resolution.  And the powers that be, the baron and his supervisor, the archly Puritanical local reverand, and the powers that are wielded by the strong (or empowered) over the weak (or dis-empowered).  Sounds like a fun time for all, huh?

Haneke isn’t known for making “fun” films.  He’s known for making challenging, critical, thought-provoking films, quite political in their ways, but clearly intellectual.  I was struck, for instance, when watching his 1997 film Funny Games (which he re-made a couple of years ago, shot-for-shot, for US audiences), at how masterful he is at audience manipulation, controlling the tools of narrative cinema, evoking the most striking elements.  A master.  But because he’s also so politicized, he’s not bent entirely on leading the filmgoer by the nose, other than to force one into situations of challenge and thought.

Ultimately, The White Ribbon is quite open-ended.  Nothing is truly resolved, huge questions are thrown open as the film ends, and the troubling situation of not having the mystery solved (though perhaps partially speculated upon), there is no closure for the audience.  It’s sort of a parable where you have to draw your own conclusions, write your own moral for the story.

Though Haneke has apparently made period films before for German television, this is the first of his films that I have seen that were not primarily set in contemporary times (however, The Time of the Wolf (2003) is set in the future).  He chose to film in black-and-white (or rather shoot color film and print in black-and-white) and spent a good deal of focus on period detail.  It’s interesting because his films and mentality are very modern or semi-post-modern perhaps.  And this film, which has a rich visual style and some poignant cinematography, “looks” more like a “classic” film.

Personally, I think Haneke is one of the most-interesting filmmakers in the world today.  My favorites of his films are Caché (2005) and The Piano Teacher (2001), though arguably those are his most mainstream or commercial films.  Maybe they are also his best films.  The White Ribbon, though I’ve given myself a few days to consider it, hasn’t fully sunken in.  Like many of the films that wind up really “sitting with you”, it takes them a while to settle into your system, to contemplate, to consider.  And since Haneke’s films are not wrapped in pure narrative or visual pleasure, one never so much “loves” them rather than is just impacted by them, affected by them, so much like its open-ended lack of solution to the mysteries, one rarely feels as if one has a full and complete sense oneself of his films.

Benny’s Video

Benny's Video (1992) movie poster

(1992) dir. Michael Haneke
viewed: 06/06/08

Anyone who actually reads this (my imaginary friends, for instance), knows that I think that Michael Haneke is one of the most interesting directors making movies today.  That said, as I have delved into his older work, and taking into consideration his most recent foray into American Cinema, he’s not always 100%.  One thing guranteed, it seems, in watching his films, is a highly uncomfortable time.

Benny’s Video is a film about a teenage boy, obsessing over a video of a pig being slaughtered and video and sound imagery overall, decides that he wants to experience “the real world”.  As typical, American junk culture is a suspect in Haneke’s eyes: McDonald’s, video nasties, politics.  But the overwhelming phenomena of kids who are tuned into fifty distractions at the same time while they do their homework, who live with a constant sensory overload, are the norm.  It’s no longer noise.  It’s background: the news, real tragedy, everything.

Haneke also critiques the culture of filming to document.  The banality of Benny’s holiday photography versus the banality yet horror of his violence that is documented.  Haneke is most interesting really at the points of which he shows the camera capturing the off-screen violence.  While Benny obsesses over the pig getting executed, over and over again, the human killing does not happen directly onscreen.  The audience watches a live replay of the scene, mostly off screen.  There is something quite fascinating about this critique and approach to violence.

I think, and it’s a little hard to say since this film is 15 years old and might have seemed more potent in its day, that Haneke is more interested in the representation of violence rather than actual violence.  Culture is so obsessed with its own representation that actuality never almost exists.  While this is his critique, his films have such an emotional distance that you never really feel the character in and of himself.

Much like Funny Games (1997), the film is a clear play of ideas.

But beyond that, the parents’ role in the narrative is hard to fathom.  I don’t know what I make of that.  Is it more then a critique of Austrian middle class?

My favorites of Haneke’s films are still The Piano Teacher (2001) and Caché (2005) in which the criticism seems more embedded in a narrative.  In these other films, the discourse seems heavily on the surface, and while rattling and intriguing, the narrative of the two more recent films wraps this discourse and makes it feel less force-fed.

Haneke is a master filmmaker.  It would be fascinating to see him just take the reins of a film like a Hitchcockian thriller, with no Modernist or Post-Modernist diegetic breaks, and just throttle the audience by his complete control of the visual images.  But beyond his control, far beyond it, is his heightened cultural critique.  There is not a single of his films that fail to leave the viewer in a heavy state of thought and analysis after watching the movie.  And that is something.


71 Fragments of a Chronicle of Chance

71 Fragments of a Chronicle of Chance (1994) movie poster

(1994) dir. Michael Haneke
viewed: 03/28/08

My “numbers” film series, movies beginning with a number, allowed me to queue up one of director Michael Haneke’s earlier films, 71 Fragments of a Chronicle of Chance, part of his “early” period, in which his films were more “experimental” and fragmented.

I stumbled onto Haneke via his film Caché (2005), and have gone on to see a couple other films of his, including The Piano Teacher (2001) and his 1997 film Funny Games, which has his name in larger form around the United States, with its “re-make”, which the more I think about it, the less I feel the need to see it.  That said, from watching his other films, I have all of his films now queued up and I even queued up a list of what I’d read were his favorite films.  I think he is that good.  However, Caché and The Piano Teacher are the best that I’ve seen, and though this film here offers some radical narrative aspects, I think some of his earlier work seems somehow dated.

Perhaps, for instance, with Funny Games, whose turn on the audience’s implicit compact with cinematic violence is questioned, out loud, I am not sure that such a message so plainly stated has the impact that something more subtle could have.  With 71 Fragments, some of the issues are similar.

The media, the American government, global though localized war, the psyche of a culture.  Perhaps, the landscape is broad, but it’s also a bit “hot button”-ish.  A spree killing centers the narrative, though it’s brought to the audience in fragments, broken via time, culminating in a single act, a ripple effect through a multitude of issues.  A Romanian child refugee.  A mother with post-partum depression.  An “ace” college student, seemingly clean-cut, seething with rage.

Ultimately, perhaps one of the film’s significant qualities is that it does pull in the headlines of the day.  The structure, reflecting on the news presentation of the spree killing, amidst various reportings of child molestation (Michael Jackson’s second go around) and wars in Bosnia, Somalia, Ireland, and other tragedies, locate this film very much in its period of the early 1990’s.  Children also seem a central theme through this film, from the homeless refugee to the adoption of a socially-challenged young girl, to the college student whose frustrations become paramount…perhaps that is why Michael Jackson catches the heat whereas everything else seems much more worldly.

Haneke has a proficiency with the camera and editing, his glimpses, his fragments still resonate, communicate, yet force the viewer to fill in gaps.  It’s funny, but his target with Funny Games was Quentin Tarantino, who actually brought at least some narrative misalignment to Hollywood, some less straightforward telling of story.

Again, like Funny Games, 71 Fragments has a datedness to its approach.  Maybe that is in its reliance on current events that pushes that feeling more than its true core.  I think there is more to consider in this film, more going on.  But Funny Games, for its obviousness that somehow diminishes itself, also features some striking narrative manipulation.  And even if you can critique that nature of cinema or cinematic narrative style (as Haneke does), I am still more awed by his mastery therein.

Actually, another of his early films is playing tonight down at the Roxie and I would like to go see it.  I don’t think I will end up doing so (Benny’s Video (1992)).  I think this film might have been better on a larger format.

Still, he’s far more interesting than a lot of directors out there.  I hope that he stays that way.

Funny Games

Funny Games (1997) movie poster

(1997) dir. Michael Haneke
viewed: 09/26/07

I don’t know why it took me so long to “discover” Michael Haneke, but it’s been quite a revelation. Though I’d caught his 2003 film Time of the Wolf back when I wasn’t working on this film diary, it wasn’t until I saw Caché (2005) that I was so struck by his work.  And watching an interview with him on that DVD, I was further struck by his intelligence and analytic qualities that far outstretch the average filmmaker, even the ones with great breadth of work.  After watching The Piano Teacher (2001), I queued up almost all of his films on my Netflix queue.  So, you’ll be seeing more of them here.

In fact, after having watched his 1997 film Funny Games and the interview with him about it, I have even gone as far as to queue up the films that he listed as his favorite 10 films.

The reason that I put Funny Games at the top was that when seeing Eastern Promises (2007), I saw a trailer for his coming American remake of Funny Games, which will star Tim Roth and Naomi Watts and will hit screens in 2008 apparently.  I thought that I ought to catch the original film.  And now I have.  And now the question I have is much like anyone familiar with his work.  What in the world will the Hollywood remake consist of, ten years on, and specifically how will he make it?  A straight re-make?

Frankly, it’s hard to discuss this film without giving away much of its key elements, so if you look to be surprised, then read no further.

The film is an explicit critique of the use of violence in films, but maybe more so, “justified” violence.

Funny Games is in a sense a thriller, a thriller about a wealthy family trapped in their lake house by two sadistic, sarcastic young killers.  The torture is both physical and psychological, disarming the father by quickly breaking his leg, they go on to humiliate and taunt the mother and the young son as well, upping the violence step by step and betting the family that none of them will survive the next 12 hours.  A promise that they make good on.

But the odd aspect of the film is its breaks in the narrative, in which one of the killers winks and nods at the audience, and then fully addresses them, making them culpable in the violence that is ensuing.  This is utterly Haneke’s point.  In watching both the torture of the family by the sadists and waiting for the violent comeuppance that the killers receive in the typical thriller, that the audience is more than insinuated in the violence, they are the reason that it exists, has been created, and they lap it up.  They cannot decry it later if they are drawn to it.  If they make it to the end, then they are much as the killers.  Of course, this “breaking” of the “third wall” separates the narrative from a sense of realism.

The realism of the family and their emotional, physical plight is played out with meticulous and potent virtuosity by Haneke.  The more than 10 minute single take of the mother and father after the son is killed (see, I told you that I’m giving this all away) is compelling.  The viewer is drawn in and pushed back by Haneke and the killer who controls the narrative and flouts expectation with aplomb and sarcasm.  Is it post-modern?  Is it essentially post-modern?  Is this technique going to be carried out in a high-budget Hollywood film?  And played in cineplexes across the US?

The is striking because a friend of mine has been reacting very passionately against cinematic violence lately, expressing outrage at people who enjoy the violence in films like Eastern Promises and the new Rob Zombie version of Halloween (2007).  Haneke is a master, really.  A master like Hitchcock in a sense.  A manipulator but not an emulator.  He controls the traditional direction of the narrative and the viewer’s expectations and emotional connection, but he criticizes it as well.

Ultimately, I found it perhaps a little passe.  But realizing that this film is 10 years old, it sort of helps to put it in perspective.  This was not my favorite of his films, but I admired the way that he approaches the film and the ideas he works with.  Even his use of music, or the lack of music (he notably doesn’t use soundtrack music), but the contrast of the family listening to classical and opera juxtaposed to the violent, raging music that punctuates the title sequence demonstrates the violent break of the family and the violent break of narrative strategies that we have grown to expect in film.  He’s truly a fascinating director.

The Piano Teacher

The Piano Teacher (2001) movie poster

(2001) dir. Michael Haneke
viewed: 05/27/07

I’ve sort of backed into realizing that director Michael Haneke is one of the most interesting directors making films today.  I’d read about The Piano Teacher when it came out and have had it in my queue for a couple of years probably.  I’d seen The Time of the Wolf (2003) during the period that I wasn’t updating this diary, but it wasn’t until I ended up seeing Caché (2005) last year that it really struck me.  I don’t usually watch extras on DVD’s that much anymore unless something sparks me.  An interview with Haneke on the Caché disc was illuminating and he struck me as intelligent and had a sense of complexity that many directors fail to earn.  But after speaking with a friend about The Piano Teacher, I decided to push it to the top and watch it.

It’s indeed a very effective film, building quiet tension in the life of the titular protagonist, brilliantly played by the absolutely amazing Isabelle Huppert (I now totally get why people rave about her — she is incredible in this film — how often do I even mention actors’ performances?).  The tensions, the chaos, the intensely Freudian world of psychosis that she embodies create the space for the film’s moments of shocking action and events.

To tell the basics of the story, a repressed piano teacher winds up in a sexual relationship with a student, breaking through her tough, controlled, and harsh manner into her kinky fantasies and ultimately, revealing her deep, dark recesses and desire for love.  It’s really hard to evoke how effective Haneke is in building this world, giving this view into this woman and her mental and emotional world.  I am at a loss to really go into it more deeply, but Haneke seems to have a strong interest in repression and the return of the repressed, all highly Freudian concepts.  It’s brutal in many ways, shocking at moments.  Fascinating.  And Isabelle Huppert…totally amazing.


Caché (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Michael Haneke
viewed: 07/02/06

Really interesting French psychological and political thriller. Highly recommended.

I’d read about this film in a lot of people’s lists of best films of 2005, but strangely didn’t know about it myself. A middle class French family begins receiving surveillance video tapes of their house and strange child-like drawings suggesting violence. The mystery starts there and the film remains open and challenging throughout.

The film has many aspects that intrigue, from the voyeuristic camera shots that watch the family’s house, which are shown full screen and start like the film’s POV, long, largely action-free shots of their building, only occasionally disrupted by a pedestrian or a car passing by. There is disruption for the viewer, realizing that they are watching a video that is part of the narrative, internally, rather than watching the film directly, per se. This opens the film and happens repeatedly throughout, heightening awareness of the visual look. This motif and its disjunctures work to unsettle the viewer as the mystery slowly develops.

The film is also political and potentially metaphorical, as its ambiguous history and understanding of events embodies the broader scope of the French relationship with Algeria and Algerian immigrants. In many ways, the film’s efficacy strikes home because it lacks overtness. The film is about the “hidden” things in society, in the family unit, in a person’s history, in a cultural landscape, and perhaps even a national identity.

The film is effective as a thriller, but admirable as a critical piece, with depths on many fronts, and a perspective of unveiling a story without ever becoming definitive or pedantic.