Film Review: Amour

I saw Amour last night at The Picture House. This unique Art Deco cinema unfortunately shows bog-standard Hollywood product most of the time, just like any multiplex, but first Mondays of each month are given over to more interesting films, some foreign.

And you couldn’t get anything less Hollywood than this French language film from 2012, about the physical and mental decline of an elderly woman after a stroke, and her husband’s dogged determination to look after her.

kinopoisk.ruGeorges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired Parisian music teachers, still in love with each other after a lifetime together, with a daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who has a career in music. We know what will happen in the end because the opening scene shows firemen breaking down the door of their flat and discovering Anne’s body in a sealed room, laid out for a funeral. There’s no sign of Georges. Following that, we see them together in an audience, watching a Schubert concert given by one of Anne’s star pupils. Then we’re in the flat as they return home, and we never leave it again.

At breakfast the next morning, Anne has a stroke. After leaving hospital, she returns home in a wheelchair. Then she has another stroke, becoming bed-ridden, incontinent, and sliding into dementia. The decline is inexorable, though there are small victories. There’s a palpable sense of joy as Anne learns to use a new, motorised wheelchair, where she’s in control of her movements, instead of being wheeled around by Georges. And there are visits by Eva and the music student whose concert they attended. But it’s all too temporary.

The title – Amour – perfectly expresses the love they feel for each other, and Georges’ sometimes exasperated care for Anne as she slips away from him. He won’t let go, refusing to let her die of thirst and hunger when she won’t eat and drink. It’s a shock when he slaps her and forces her to drink. This is love at its most essential and most brutal.

Ultimately, he smothers her with a pillow, finally granting her own request to die. This scene is unexpected, peremptory, after Georges has assuaged Anne’s mental pain by telling her a story about his life as a child. The violence is deeply unsettling, as her body kicks against death. A Hollywood treatment would have given Anne a moment in her old persona to persuade Georges to end her life, and edited out her death throes. Here the Anne he knew is gone, and we must accept the possibility that he kills her in part because he cannot take any more.

All this takes place within the claustrophobic confines of the flat, orchestrated by the distinct sound effects of their life together – the clicking of plates, running of taps, the everyday domestic sounds, including Georges lifting Anne from wheelchair to armchair or bed. No incidental music. The intimacy forces you to be in the flat with them, whether you want to or not. This is an intensely physical film. Every action is fully acted out, almost like a documentary – there are no cinematic segues to cover what another director might deem an uninteresting or trivial event. Each scene plays itself out in full, followed distinctly by another, as in a slide show.

Along with the physicality, there are the facial expressions of Georges and Anne. You know what they’re thinking, even though the dialogue is mostly concerned with superficially mundane matters. Anne’s look of pure hate at being force fed speaks volumes. Eva is far less expressive, almost emotionally stunted, suggesting that her parents’ love for each other may have been so overwhelming that it left too little to encompass their daughter. Certainly, Georges resents her wanting a decision in her mother’s care, though Eva’s attempts at engagement are fitful, as if prompted by duty.

Within this bleak, matter of fact tale, is the mystery of Georges and Anne’s love, shining through their performances without a trace of sentimentality, sometimes modulated by frustration and anger. There are other mysteries. The pigeon who flies in through the courtyard window suggests a psychopomp, come to guide Anne’s soul to an afterlife. And despite being dead, Anne returns to free the now very frail Georges from the flat (and from a miserable life, as he did for her), after first doing the washing-up. The flat almost becomes a kind of Limbo.

Amour is an emotionally rich, bleak, beautiful film. I urge you to see it.

Book Review: The Seance

The Seance (Jonathan Cape, 2008), by John Harwood.

I love a good melodramatic Victorian mystery, filled with supernatural trappings, and this novel has them all. There are not one, but two plucky young heroines, occult powers, seances, cruel families, love at first sight, threats of the asylum, mad inventors, villainous husbands, and a sinister country house. There’s also a suggestion that the villain is none other than Jack the Ripper. At the heart of the story is Constance Langton’s search for her real identity, revealed through three separate narratives. Constance’s narrative is set in 1889, with flashbacks to the 1860s in the others.

Harwood properly ladles on the atmosphere. You can’t help but sympathize with Constance, who must endure an emotionally absent father, and an emotionally cruel mother who lavishes all her affection on Alma, Constance’s younger sister. This is one of the reasons why Constance thinks herself a foundling. When Alma dies of the scarlet fever that she has just recovered from, their mother is thrown into a deep depression. Her father leaves Constance to deal with it all, just as soon as she’s old enough, on the excuse of writing a book at his sister’s house.

Her mother’s grief can only be assuaged by trying to contact Alma in the afterlife. Glad to be of some help, Constance knowingly, if guiltily, takes her to fraudulent seances. They are successful, with an unintended consequence. After finally “seeing” and “holding” Alma, her mother happily commits suicide that same night, leaving a note that says, “Forgive me – I could not wait.”

This part of the novel, set in London, serves as a preface to the main gothic mystery of  Wraxford Hall on the Suffolk coast. Do you need me to tell you that Constance inherits the place and its dark past? It’s told through the account of her solicitor, and his former acquaintanceship with a charismatic previous owner, a mesmerist who mysteriously disappeared. As did two others before him, all during thunderstorms. And also told through the account of Eleanor Unwin, the mesmerist’s wife, before returning to Constance and her daring expedition to Wraxford Hall in the company of a band of psychical researchers. Think Victorian ghostbusters.

Harwood keeps the overall narrative flowing, despite dividing it into thick chunks. It falters a bit on the characterization. Both Constance and Eleanor are thoroughly plucky young women, to the point where I sometimes felt they were too much of a muchness.

Wraxford Hall, a decaying Elizabethan pile, is a major character in its own right, with a real brooding presence. I’m giving nothing away by saying that the occult is not taken seriously in this novel – indeed the opening epigram is a recipe for producing a convincing spirit manifestation. It does seem a waste of all the splendid supernatural props – Wraxford Hall being most impressive – to not set a tone of greater credulity before revealing the smoke and mirrors. My willing suspension of disbelief was ready and waiting.

That said, the novel works well without it, relying on the intensity of Constance’s search for her real identity. I’m impressed by the way Harwood subverts my expectation of the obvious dramatic climax being the end of the story. There’s an old wrong to be righted, and Constance is the woman to do it.