Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: on Michael Haneke’s “Amour”

“Dance me to the end of love” – Madeleine Peyroux

What happens when happily ever after ends? Michael Haneke, the distinguished Austrian filmmaker whose credits include realist horror stories such as Funny Games, Caché and the 2009 Cannes Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon, makes a radical departure from his usual oeuvre to answer the question.

Right off the bat, cineastes note that this film’s subject matter is not something expected of the director. His films appear at first blush to have an accessible theme, but are often about something else altogether. His Caché started off with a couple attempting to find out who’s been sending them videotapes of themselves carrying on in their daily lives, but is a meditation on the legacy of the Franco-Algerian War. La Pianiste appears to be about a forbidden sexual affair, but actually explores misanthropy and sexual alienation. And The White Ribbon might seem like a riff on Children of the Corn, but things take a more darkly realistic turn when you realize this was in the years just before WWI and who the young citizens of that small German grew up to be in the 1930s … and into this mix comes Amour.

Set in contemporary Paris, we meet an elegant retired couple in their 80s who were once great piano teachers. They attend recitals, they debate interpretations and they mentor dazzling pianists who still look to them for their opinions on the latest attempt at perfecting Handel’s Sarabande. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) now live in an elegant Parisian apartment, enjoying their retirement. One day, Anne has a stroke at breakfast, but doesn’t know it. A series of increasingly debilitating strokes weaken her and rob her of her motor coordination, until she is all but confined to her bed and barely able to receive the occasional visitor. Their estranged daughter (Isabelle Huppert) drops by every once in awhile to express her annoyance at their care of treatment plan, and is exasperated by Georges’s measures to prevent her from even seeing her mother in such a state. Georges, suspicious of nursing homes, refuses to let Anne be looked after outside the apartment: soon, we notice that we haven’t left the apartment, either.

If this story sounds familiar, it is thematically similar to Sarah Polley’s acclaimed 2007 film Away From Her, which explores a husband watching helplessly as his wife drifts away into the abyss of Alzheimer’s. Unlike Polley’s film, however, Haneke’s story doesn’t take place in a nursing home, and instead explores the ever-increasing, possibly inescapable indignities that arrive in old age. Anne falls out of bed in an attempt to be mobile. An unfeeling home-care nurse treats her roughly and, when fired by Georges, gives him a terse “go fuck yourself, you dirty old man”. Eventually, pained by her inability to express herself through music any longer, Anne orders Georges to stop playing recordings of their favourite piano pieces. All that is left is the couple, the silence, and the long torturous wait for The End. And in the end, is that all there is? Is this what happens at the end of love? Haneke posits that the title is a bitter test at the end of a long and happy marriage, as if the universe tauntingly asks, “do you love your spouse this much?”

Haneke, with the Palme d'Or, Cannes 2012
I was reminded recently of the beloved American sitcom The Golden Girls, a long-running smash about four senior women living in a shared Miami home, enjoying life to the hilt. The gut-busting laughter in that show was always informed by the ever-present specter of death looming about, and how the women respond to changing times and attitudes with perspective and good humour. The show regularly made fun of Alzheimer’s and did not shy away from jokes about adult diapers. Its insight was informed by the idea of a blended biological and adopted family that kept the demons at bay, even in the face of impending mortality. Georges and Anne, however, have all but locked themselves into their well-appointed home that serves as a de facto sarcophagus. Haneke’s vision is grim and sobering.

This is not, however, a damnation of Amour. On the contrary, it is one of the most penetrating and emotionally devastating films in recent years. Trintignant, the handsome 1960s leading man of A Man and a Woman and the great Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Rouge, came out of retirement to play Georges. His quiet dignity must be enough for two, as he hides his suffering in plain sight of his wife while she is betrayed by the confines of her now-feeble body. Riva, the ravishing star of Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, bottles the last of Anne’s great beauty and cages it within the prison of her mind, looking out onto Georges from within. It’s as if she were suffering death by a thousand cuts, all of them bleeding internally and, most poisonously, emotionally. Providing able support is another French acting national treasure, Huppert, packing her brief appearances here memorably with years of untold frustration. She’s long past the point in life where she knows better than her parents, but helplessly finding their situation increasingly untenable. That Haneke’s story was strong enough to draw two top-drawer veterans out of hibernation and one of the country’s preeminent stars proves that it is a worthy project of the highest order. As he gives the story the gravity it deserves, these three inhabit their performances with nuance and skill that could only have been gained through experience, and cannot be taught in acting class.

While I have painted a story about mortality and decay, I must emphasize that this is a film that fully embodies its title. Haneke’s film says that love reaches beyond platitudes, song and passion, well into the unknown and emphasizes “for worse”, whatever that might be. It is at times unbearably painful. Those who only fathom true cinematic romance in vampire movies and that “notebook” will not be prepared for what lies beyond fantasy and the promise of eternal youth, and posits that only the eternal aspect of love survives, long after the point of no return.

Amour won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It has been a sensation at film festivals the world over and is the Austrian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards (which I predict it will likely win, or be at least nominated). I would argue that all three performers – Trintignant, Riva and Huppert – also deserve nominations for their challenging work. Amour has been opening slowly throughout Europe, and is set for limited release in North America on December 19, 2012. It will be one of the most haunting films on pure, unadulterated love you will ever see.

Monday, October 8, 2012

The German Opera Project: “Wagner’s Dream” (VIFF 2012)

It’s nice to know that in parts of North America, high culture can still be a big deal. In the fall of 2010, New York was in a furor when the legendary Metropolitan Opera debuted Robert LePage’s staging of Wagner’s Der Ring das Nibelungen. Opening night drew out high society, in addition to the notorious “Ring nuts”, and luminaries such as André Leon Talley attended. Outside Lincoln Center, hundreds sat on plastic chairs in the rain to watch the opening performance for free in as it was projected on giant screens, which was also simulcast in Times Square. Despite being so close to the Jersey “shore”, high culture can still command an audience.

The production of the most noteworthy Ring Cycle in recent years is the subject of Wagner’s Dream. Directed by noted Quebecois stage and film director Robert LePage, the massive undertaking involved a 90,000 pound (45 ton) stage, hydraulics, zip lines, a frequent fear that the stage would injure the performers, and assembled talent such as famed conductor James Levine. Director Susan Froemke had free rein to follow every aspect of the production, much like last year’s little-seen Wagner documentary The Singing City, a document on the staging of Parsifal in Stuttgart at around the same time.

LePage is known for unconventional productions. He staged Peter Gabriel’s masterful Secret World Tour from 1994, made the award-winning film Le Confessionnel in 1995, directed numerous operas and oversaw the Cirque du Soleil shows Ka and Totem. The Met had wanted to instill new life into a shrinking subscriber base as opera was becoming more expensive, and their prior productions had not been well-received. A production of the Ring Cycle in LA in the spring of 2010 cost an astounding $31 million and failed to turn a profit, not to mention having been criticized for its avant-garde staging, and with lawsuits stemming from workplace injuries. Taking a chance on LePage meant they wanted something fresh and exciting, and potentially ground-breaking. And they got it in spades.

The Rhine maidens, suspended in performance
LePage’s stage for the Met’s Ring Cycle consisted of one giant piece. It is a set of overwhelmingly large planks spinning 360 degrees on a long rod that ran the length of the stage. The planks moved independently of each other and, with the right lighting, were able to stand in for the River Rhine, the forests, the great palace of Valhalla, underworld caves and all manner of hinterlands in between. The Rhine maidens were lifted on harnesses and sang the challenging libretto while suspended in mid-air, adjusting so that the safety wear did not prevent their diaphragms from being able to fully project. We see the initial rehearsals where the sopranos worked with technicians to ensure that they were positioned so that they could sing, and learning how not to get caught in the set or plunge below should a harness snap. (And you thought you had occupational hazards.)

Voigt, as Brunnhilde 
We follow LePage and other production heads as they negotiate the set and reassure the performers that they will be safe. We meet charming Deborah Voigt, the dazzling soprano who was famously dismissed from a 2004 production of Ariadne auf Naxos at the Royal Opera House for being too fat for the title role, as she prepares mightily, only to suffer an embarrassing fall on the set on opening night of Die Walküre. Brünnhilde is considered the ultimate test for sopranos and for many is the role of a lifetime. We also learn that famed tenor Gary Lehrman bowed out of the production four days before opening night of Siegfried and was replaced by Jay Hunter Morris on short notice. And then there is the sudden exit of conductor James Levine due to ongoing health issues. On top of this, that darn stage appears to have a mind of its own and continues to be a potential safety hazard.

Nevertheless, Froemke’s assured hand as a director ensures that we see the top players in the industry work their way through the difficult material, breathing new life and vision into the work. This is a film not just for Ring nuts or classical music lovers, it is an accessible story of collaboration on a project everyone believes in. You will not find any diva tantrums, All About Eve-style backstage back-stabbing or petty squabbles here. We also see the perspective of the New York Wagner Society, who traverse the world seeing different versions of the Ring Cycle and warn the opera directors that the production should not overwhelm or get in the way of the score. An usher tells us that purists want to see the same play performed in the same way, time after time, without deviation or. That Froemke’s camera is able to get behind the scenes and capture the perspective of the vanguard who is the gatekeeper of the canonical work shows that she understands the cultural value and interest in getting the Ring Cycle done just right. (Those purists would no doubt have hated last year’s San Francisco production, which combined industrial art deco production design with Jay Gatsby’s wardrobe.) They all know they’re embarking on a daunting and slightly mad venture, but everyone respects the journey and take it seriously.

Wagner’s original composition in the 1870s could not have been staged the way he wanted it, and he expressed unhappiness with the original production at Bayreuth, declaring “next year we’ll do it differently”. In an age when technology has finally caught up with the infinity of imagination, LePage was able to realize Wagner’s dream.

Wagner’s Dream played at the Vancouver International Film Festival and enjoyed a successful art house run in Los Angeles and New York. The entire Metropolitan 2010-2012 Ring Cycle played on PBS and screened in cinemas in HD. For more information on Metropolitan Opera productions in HD, head over to their site.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

VIFF 2012: “A Royal Affair”

I love palace intrigue. If the naughty goings-on of Prince Harry this summer in Las Vegas were any indication, so does the rest of the free world. We enthrall ourselves to the naughty happenings of royalty, going back to the age of the Roman Empire. Even as print is a dying medium, it still makes great copy in our era, especially if we can screen-cap, Tweet, Facebook-update (is this a verb now?) eyewitness accounts in real time. Into this state of affairs comes an excellent new film at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Nikolaj Arcel’s Danish costume drama A Royal Affair (original title: En kongelig affære). 

This Affair is set in Copenhagen and continental Europe during the 1760s and 1770s. Young Princess Caroline of England (luminous newcomer Alicia Vikander, who also plays Kitty in the much-anticipated new version of Anna Karenina) is married off for political reasons to King Christian VII of Denmark (Mikkel Følsgaard). Christian is a poorly educated, foppish dilettante who the entire court believes to be mad. He has frequent outbursts that include announcements at dinner to the entire court of when he intends to sleep with his wife. Once he has tired of her and she has produced an heir, he gives himself over to every vice possible and frequents brothels, oblivious to public opinion and the scandal sheets. It is believed in a number of historical biographies, as well as in this film, that he suffered from an undiagnosed medical condition that may have been schizophrenia. (One doctor’s prognosis is that his condition was brought about by excessive masturbation.) In any event, the ruling powers make the disinterested king sign off laws, orders and decrees that are to their advantage. It suits them that the king is perceived to be a madman.

Into this unhappy royal marriage comes Dr. Johann Struensee (a quietly smoldering Mads Mikkelsen). Despite being the son of a prominent conservative minister, Struensee is a man of reason and science, not of faith. Appointed royal physician, he is also the secret author of some “subversive” writings proposing such radical ideas as abolishment of serfdom and peasantry, enforced inoculation, and other reforms that were counterintuitive to the nobility’s interest. Struensee and Caroline bond over their mutual frustration with Christian’s infidelity, their belief that nobility abuse of the masses should end, and an attraction borne out of loneliness and a meeting of the minds. Caroline’s discovery of Rousseau’s dangerous philosophical treatises on the new social contract in Struensee’s library appears to seal the deal.

Struensee soon proves himself to be an able and astute observer of what Denmark needs to reform. Eventually, and much to the consternation of vengeful nobles, he persuades Christian to dissolve the state council and together they form a ruling class of two. This true story takes place in the Age of Enlightenment, which is the real catalyst of progress. Struensee and Christian introduce ideas radical to the age, such as lifting the ban on state censorship, greater access to health care, the abolition of serfdom, and additional reforms that promise to deliver Denmark into an Enlightened and progressive state. The nobility are put out by these changes and quietly sharpen their knives, waiting for some salacious piece of innuendo with which to remove Struensee. In one hilarious example of reform, Christian descries the lack of proper sanitation in the city and declares a “war on shit” in which he triples the number of waste collectors. There’s a line from Hamlet that is brilliantly used here. (You know which one it is.)

The film doesn’t hesitate to put the king, his queen and his doctor on morally ambiguous ground. Struensee helps alleviate the king’s condition as best he can and encourages him to become a truly groundbreaking, fair-minded ruler, but he also sleeps with his wife and is a political radical (at least he was for the times). Morality and ethics aren’t applied in broad unambiguous stripes here, making even the exemplary Struensee an antihero at best. Not even King Christian is a devil, he’s simply so overwhelmed at his lot in life that he holds himself captive to his most base desires at the sake of his own dignity.

It is a testament to Følsgaard’s work that what could have been a caricature is instead a measured study of a man trapped by the confines of his mental and emotional issues, trapped within his body without a prognosis for his various maladies. They say comedy is harder to play than drama, but arguably the greatest challenge is doing both in the same performance to develop narrative arc and character, subtly and without exaggeration. It is possibly the best interpretation of mad royalty since Nigel Hawthorne’s master class in The Madness of King George. The delicate balance of humour and pathos earned Følsgaard Best Actor honours at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. He should look forward to receiving further recognition.

Recognition should also be given to Vikander for her portrait of a queen desperately locked in a life of unhappiness, knowing she is a laughingstock for marrying a madman. She exudes intellect that thinly veils a repressed sensuality. She successfully makes you believe that the Queen never fell in love until after her marriage. Mikkelson, as Struensee, is on a roll this year. He pairs quietly intense work here with his soul-destroying performance in The Hunt, for which he won one of the other major film festival acting prizes (Cannes). Mikkelson will soon star as the new Dr. Lecter in the forthcoming television series Hannibal. The trio constitute a locked-and-loaded triangle in which there’s no one to root for entirely, but you just wish them all well despite the cruelty of time and circumstance.

A Royal Affair is the Danish official entry for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It is currently playing at the Vancouver International Film Festival and is scheduled for limited release in North American beginning on November 9, 2012.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

TV Review: “The Song of Lunch”

The title gives it away, even though it’s hiding in plain sight. While etymologically it signifies nothing, it reveals that the BBC production The Song of Lunch is styled after the mock heroic narrative poem conventions popular in the Regency Period. In particular, the title hearkens back to Alexander Pope’s epic poem The Rape of the Lock, a seriocomic masterpiece that blows the cutting of a lock of hair out of proportion. In other words, it is a perfect storm in a teacup.

And what a storm is brewing in the glasses served at The Song of Lunch. This is a dramatization of a contemporary narrative poem by Christopher Reid. He (Alan Rickman) once had a passionate affair with her (Emma Thompson). She moved away long ago to marry a successful novelist in Paris, while he has an editorial job he despises. The funereal volume of poems he composed based on her departure went out of print, “creeping into triple digits” in terms of its pitiful sales. This is their first meeting in fifteen years, at a restaurant that he heavily criticizes but also cherishes because they both shared happy memories there: it was their place. Directed by Niall McCormick, the film runs an economical 48 minutes. Little actual dialogue is spoken, as the lunch is almost narrated entirely by him. He still aches for her, as the production flashes back to their intense lovemaking, while resenting her choice to leave him behind.

The inner monologue he intones deliciously elevates the exercise of mastication to Herculean heights. The ordering of the meals from both he and she, informed by feeling and recognition of old patterns, invokes different reactions from the same waiter and reveals calculated premeditation usually reserved for warfare. (Reid would not be above assigning similarly heavy significance to the arrangement of forks, at least for this occasion.) No drop of wine falls without threatening to echo across the universe, magnifying its terrifyingly insignificant significance to shake the heavens. To give you a better flavor of it, here is the opening of the text:

It’s an ordinary day
in a publishing house

of ill repute.
Another moronic manuscript
comes crashing down the chute
to be turned into art.
This morning it was Wayne Wanker’s
latest dog’s dinner
of sex, teenage philosophy
and writing-course prose.
Abracadabra, kick it up the arse -
and out it goes
to be Book of the Week
or some other bollocks.
What a fraud. What a farce.
And tomorrow: who knows
which of our geniuses
will escape from the zoo
and head straight for us
with a new masterpiece
lifeless in his jaws.

Reader, you may have noticed that neither character is named, thereby throwing the drama into sharp relief. Not only are the acts and omissions of these two people of nominal interest other than to themselves (he arguably more than she), but they are also greatly exaggerated. It should surprise no one that his hateful volume of regret features an Orpheus and Eurydice analogy elevated to absurd dimension. Like the mock heroic narrative poem tradition, Reid blatantly and deliberately flaunts the narrative excesses to grotesque grandeur, like a Grand Guignol of emotions dancing on the frays of his last nerve.

Although he is the orator of these proceedings, it should be no surprise that she has her own perception of how they once were. As the wine flows and he polishes off the first bottle, she presents her own view of their relationship and rips his analogy apart, then rebuilds it using new signifiers to reflect his own character – the one he cannot or refuses to accept – back onto him. The Song of Lunch, for its deadly hilarious and delectable turns of phrase, also harbors buried anguish, stuffed away in the deepest chambers of the soul, slouching forth to be borne again.  At its heart, the poem says that as grander emotions like love, lust and anger subsides, they are replaced by disappointment. It’s the ultimate sign that one is getting older when once-all-consuming passions surrender to resignation and regret. At one point, there is no longer any energy to be angry, only the gradual acceptance that a Henry James character once uttered in a devastating cri de couer, “We can never again be what we once were!”

The Song of Lunch received scant attention in North America until Emma Thompson received a surprise Emmy nomination for Best Actress this summer. It is so little-seen that neither its IMDB nor its Rotten Tomatoes pages have any memorable quotes submitted for it. The fact that such a symphony of the English language is not enshrined anywhere on the Internet for the aliens to find, but where reality show sound bites run unabated, is a crying shame.

If, after a summer of junk culture you crave a meal of substantive art, tuck into The Song of Lunch.