Ladies and gentlemen, your Palme d’Or frontrunner has arrived. In fact, had Michael Haneke not won a mere three years ago for The White Ribbon (one of his weakest films, in my opinion), I’d be prepared to tell the remaining Competition hopefuls to pack up their gear and head home, sight unseen. Such is the nearly undeniable power of Amour, in which Haneke trains his merciless rigor—leavened, for perhaps the first time ever, with deeply felt tenderness and compassion—on the most universally heartbreaking aspect of the human condition: old age and its myriad indignities.
Opening with a violent rupture—police breaking down the door of a tastefully appointed Paris apartment, to find a solitary corpse neatly laid out on the bed—the film flashes back to introduce its central couple, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), experiencing smaller but more ominous cracks in their world. First they arrive home from a concert to find that the lock on their front door has been jimmied, though nothing is missing. The next morning, Anne abruptly freezes in the middle of a conversation, then snaps back to life with no memory of having gone briefly catatonic. From there, as Georges will later bluntly tell their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), things get gradually worse until it’s finally over. But Georges, determined to honor Anne’s request not to return to the hospital following an unsuccessful operation, movingly illustrates the pragmatic sentiment that Terence Davies inserted into his recent adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, viz. that true love isn’t candy hearts and flowers but wiping someone’s ass when they can no longer do it themselves.
For about an hour or so, I could scarcely believe I was watching a Haneke film, despite his trademark formal classicism and absence of overt sentimentality. Riva (who’s 85) and Trintignant (81), both icons of the nouvelle vague (she was the star of Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, he the titular pronoun in Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s), divest themselves of all fussiness and vanity, creating a wholly credible portrait of a lifelong relationship grounded in mutual respect and understanding. There’s almost an “aww” factor to Georges’ attentiveness following Anne’s first stroke, which ill-prepares you for the truly grueling compendium of slow deterioration to come. By the time she’s reduced to an immobile husk capable only of slurring the word “hurts” over and over again, Haneke’s single-minded, unsparing approach will surely have wrecked you…and yet there’s also so much raw beauty in this paean to devotion, including several starkly poetic interludes (a strange nightmare sequence, a montage of landscape paintings) that have no logical/narrative explanation but nonetheless feel exactly right. (There’s a symbolic pigeon, too, but its intrusion doesn’t play out as you might expect.) Even the halting way that Georges is forced to hurry when Anne urgently needs his help, due to his own slight infirmity, speaks volumes about the anguish of being betrayed by your own body and the fortitude necessary to carry on with the business of loving regardless. Amour is a tough sit, and tells you nothing you don’t already implicitly know (sing along with young Mick: “What a draaaag it is gettin’ old”), but I still felt oddly uplifted, as if I’d seen an act of great heroism. Grade: B+ (but to put that in perspective, this is my favorite film not just here at Cannes but of the entire year so far; I’m just ridiculously stingy with A’s).
After watching Huppert sob and rant her way through her scenes in Amour (it’s a fairly small supporting role), it felt good to see her having such fun playing the lead role in Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country,the first film he’s made to prominently feature a European among his usual cast of carousing Koreans. That innovation aside, however, this is pretty much the same movie Hong always makes, and while I’ve enjoyed some of his recent work (especially Oki’s Movie from two years back), I begin to fear that he’s creatively exhausted, having rung almost every possible variation from his limited set of interests: formal repetition, drunken male idiocy, the vast gulf between self-image and what others perceive, and (increasingly) the subtle neuroses of people who make movies. Fact is, I now reflexively cringe whenever a Hong character announces that (s)he’s a director or screenwriter, as they almost invariably are. Sure enough, In Another Country comprises three scripts being written by a young woman (seen only in a brief prologue and a few connecting shots, though the same actress appears in other roles), the first of which introduces Huppert as a well-known French filmmaker. This initial episode, in which Huppert gets aggressively courted by a vacation-spot lifeguard in hilariously fractured English, seems promising, but returns diminish during the mini-tales that follow—set in the same locale and involving most of the same characters, but with Huppert as a different woman each time. Reverberations among the triptych are slight, and it almost seems as if Hong is poking fun at his own single-minded oeuvre, creating a fractal representation of how his other films obliquely interrelate. But that’s crawling quite a ways up your own ass, frankly, and the novelty of seeing Huppert in this context doesn’t much compensate. Grade: C+
And then we have Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, regarding which I have to just punt, I’m afraid. Not since Wild Grass three years ago have I been so completely bewildered by what on its surface would seem to be a fairly straightforward—even simple—narrative work. That Iran’s greatest director shot this film in Tokyo with an entirely Japanese cast isn’t the issue—it’s unmistakably his work, especially considering that roughly half of it takes place in a moving or parked car. And I can break the story down for you, no problem: a college student who moonlights as an escort (without her boyfriend’s knowledge) spends what appears to be a platonic night with an elderly professor, who drives her to an exam the next day, discusses the pros and cons of marriage with her boyfriend (who mistakenly assumes he’s her grandfather), and attempts to rescue her when the boyfriend discovers what’s actually going on.
What I don’t remotely understand is what the movie purports to be about, or why Kiarostami wanted to make it. It’s not a character study, as escort, professor, and boyfriend alike are defined exclusively by a few shallow behavioral tics. The narrative, which I’ve described almost in its entirety above, consists of dispassionate conversations that are 80% filler, pointlessly repeating what’s already been said or digressing into sheer banality. And there’s a startling, truncated conclusion that seems completely out of proportion with the lazy, anti-urgent meandering that precedes it. Even the few standout sequences, like a lengthy shot of the escort listening to an endless series of increasingly plaintive voicemails from her grandmother while being chauffeured to the professor’s home, seem bizarrely disconnected from everything else. If this were an unknown director, I’d just assume incompetence, but Kiarostami surely has some grand design here—it’s just utterly escaping me, and reading other critics’ reviews isn’t helping. Folks are valiantly working to link the boyfriend mistaking Professor Platonic for Gramps with the mysterious shifting identities in Certified Copy, but if you’ve seen that film (and you should if you haven’t, it’s fantastic), imagine that after the nice lady in the coffee shop assumes Shimell and Binoche are married, and isn’t corrected, the two of them spend the next hour not arguing about the nature of their relationship alone, but instead idly discussing mundane details of their fake marriage with the coffee-shop lady. And then at the end they get scalding hot coffee thrown in their faces when a friend of Binoche’s walks in and has no idea who Shimell is. That’s how weirdly purposeless Like Someone in Love feels. I know there’s something happening here, but I don’t know what it is. Do I, Mr. Jones? Grade: WTF
Tomorrow: Alain Resnais offers what appears to be his swan song, defiantly titled You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet! Also, Ken Loach hopefully reverses his recent trend toward noble mediocrity, and I finally catch up with Sundance sensation Room 237, about conspiracy theories involving Kubrick’s The Shining.