Thursday 15 November 2012

Amour review

Amour (12A, 127 mins)
Director: Michael Haneke
★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Michael Haneke picked up his second Palme d’Or at Cannes this year but, unlike his previous winner, The White Ribbon, the punishing ordeal that is Amour offers little reward beyond its surface grimness and gloss.

It opens with fire and police officers breaking into an apartment, where an elderly woman is found in a sealed off room, dead on her bed and surrounded by flowers. Let this opening be a warning as to where the film is headed, as we go back to meet Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a well-healed Parisian couple in their 80s. They still enjoy an active lifestyle, but Georges begins to notice Anne sort of spacing out, and it’s discovered that she’s suffered a stroke.

As Anne becomes progressively more sick and dependent, Georges struggles to care for her through daily life, as Haneke probes and lingers, and as the indignities for Anne increase, the reasons for continuing to watch slip away. Other than a concert visit at the beginning we don’t leave the apartment, and it soon becomes oppressive, as the Austrian director exhibits his talent for presenting horror in the mundane. It’s a demanding film, and one that never feels sorry for itself, or lapses into melancholy, utterly rejecting sentiment. Obviously it’s hardly a laugh riot, but nor is it entirely devoid of humour. But it’s such a cold, composed affair kept at such a clinical distance that there’s no way of penetrating its armour.

Many scenes outstay their welcome and the overwhelming desire grows just to see it end. What keeps it from being just too taxing for words is what gives the film its title - the 50 or 60 years of love that exist between these two that the ravages of illness and death can’t rend, and Georges’ commitment to Anne is quietly heartbreaking.

The acting is small, subtle, and beautiful, and every moment is crafted with precision and the utmost skill by Haneke. But it’s not really enough. As a piece of filmmaking, Amour is a towering achievement, but it’s near unwatchable cinema, and it’s difficult to fathom why anyone would want to put themselves through it in the name of entertainment.

The Master review

The Master (15/R, 143 mins)
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Paul Thomas Anderson’s long awaited new film, his first since the monumental There Will Be Blood five years ago, is a drifting, enigmatic thing that is bound to please some audiences more than others.

On the surface it’s a film about a cult which some have likened to Scientology, which may well be the case. It’s not really important. The sceptics do get a voice, but it’s not an attack on it, put it that way. Disappointingly, it never fully succeeds as character study either.

Anderson’s skill at conveying character through action rather than words does drive the early stages though, as we encounter Freddie (Joaquin Phoenix) just as the end of the Second World War brings his days in the navy to a close.

Something of an oddball, seemingly sex-obsessed and suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, he drifts from job to job in the years following the war, never sure what to do with himself and subject to bouts of rage.

Freddie likes to make his own hooch, almost as much as he likes to drink it. On the run after being accused of poisoning someone with it, he stows away on a boat in San Francisco bound for New York.

It’s here that me meets Lancaster Dodd, played by Anderson’s frequent collaborator, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dodd describes himself as “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher”, any of which may or may not be the truth, but what most certainly is true is what a powerful and magnetic figure he is.

He leads a group called The Cause, and claims he can explore a person’s past lives through time-travel hypnosis, and that through this he can cure cancer and mental illness. Dodd sees the lost soul in Freddie and sets about trying to initiate him into their ways, but Freddie’s erratic behaviour consistently comes between them.

Deliberately paced, The Master lacks the clarity of intent that made There Will Be Blood so memorable. Like that film it has at its core a man of power and ambition and great will, albeit one who is most likely a brain-washing charlatan. It takes a while to show its hand, if it ever does, but the presence of its actors keeps you watching, and the technical expertise with which it’s all put together is beyond reproach.

But the content is the key, and it’s here that The Master both triumphs and frustrates. In a second half that’s largely unchecked by narrative conventions, it jumps between scenes that don’t necessarily relate or follow on to what’s come before. It’s never dull, but nor does it ever grab you by the throat and force you to engage with it.

This is all the more exasperating because, in Hoffman, we’re watching one of the finest actors on the planet command the screen. Phoenix is almost as magnetic in an astonishing physical performance, hunched and gaunt, his face perpetually contorted in a Brando sneer. Their initial scenes together electrify, as Dodd probes the weaker man into revealing the details of his past.

But it loses its way somewhat in a midsection that feels aimless and a final third that becomes increasingly obtuse and unaccommodating, and in the end The Master is an occasionally stunning but more often than not maddening experience.