Gripped tight

New cinema releases reviewed by Sylvia Lawson

27 February 2013



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Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in Michael Haneke’s Amour.

EMERGING from such current political thrillers as Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, people credit them with toughness; here and again are the machinations of the CIA; here is the destructive power of those who, supposedly, are working against the evil in the world, and we their allies had better take it on. In Amour, Michael Haneke delivers something tougher than all of that, and it’s as much in the point of view being exercised as in what we see. Almost everything happens in a tranquil, civilised Parisian interior; by the end of the film you could almost draw a floor plan of Georges and Anne’s book-lined apartment, with its baby-grand piano, armchairs, polished floors and paintings.

These two, now in their eighties, are retired teachers of music. We get the end in the beginning, when firemen break open the flat to find an old woman’s body among wilting flowers; then we discover the couple in the middle of the audience at a concert. A former student is playing that night; later, when he comes to visit, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) has been disabled by a stroke, and she can play no longer. She begs Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) not to commit her to a hospital, and he therefore becomes her carer; as she deteriorates mentally and physically, the burden becomes unbearable. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) visits, and tries to talk to her completely uncomprehending mother about her concerns with real estate and property values; that sequence is grotesque. So is Georges’s argument with a rather nasty part-time nurse. He must deal not only with Anne’s physical dependence and many attendant indignities, but also with her degeneration into animal incoherence, her total loss of self. One thing I liked a lot: Haneke’s refusal to sentimentalise Anne’s music, to use it as consolation. Georges is allowed a memory of her playing Schubert, along with another kind of memory in which she’s moving round the kitchen, doing the washing-up.

There’s no compensation, no final gleam of recognition, gratitude or love, though perhaps her last utterances “rage against the dying of the light.” But this too is a thriller, a very dark one; the enemy in pursuit is simply time. We’re made to feel its relentlessness by Haneke’s steady pacing of the story, by the way it’s held in the calm, ultra-civilised setting, and the way the two principals steer their courses; everything depends on the way they hold together characters for whom everything’s falling apart. The story’s grip is very tight; I’ve seldom sat in such a tense, unmoving audience. Questions trail away at the end, as they do in all Haneke’s films; think of the deeply enigmatic Caché, and The White Ribbon. He leaves you with a lot to think about afterwards, one mark of what really counts as cinema.

IT HAS been suggested that Lincoln and Django Unchained should be seen one after the other, as contrasting perspectives on the historical facts of slavery; I’d recommend against it. For the second, Quentin Tarantino has his usual fun with history and its grand parades; tongues are well back in cheeks, everything’s in heavy quotes, and the plot is not the story. This bizarre, highly literate concoction is wildly enjoyable, thanks to the concentration of narrative and to several precisely geared performances: those of Christoph Waltz (he was there in Inglourious Basterds) as the bounty-hunting Dr King Schultz, and Jamie Foxx as the freed slave Django who becomes his partner (“How do you like the bounty hunting business?” “Kill white people and get paid for it? What’s not to like?”) There are also Leonardo Di Caprio’s merciless plantation-owner; Samuel L. Jackson, nearly unrecognisable in prosthetic overweight, as his retainer; and Kerry Washington as Django’s dignified bride – stolen, enslaved, freed and recovered as the tale unwinds. There’s mayhem before the end, and some viewers recoil from the spurting blood. But it isn’t blood; Tarantino is a master-conjurer, and this is another box of tricks, with the wholly appropriate moral falling out at the end.

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, on the other hand, is a serious telling of history, grounded by its writer Tony Kushner in the revived researches of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. The time covered is early 1865, the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life. At this time in the Civil War, the southern Confederacy is suing for peace – and well they might; we catch images of devastating mass murder on the battlefields. But it’s mostly a film of dark brown interiors; within them, Daniel Day-Lewis’s sober, wry, burdened president won’t agree to end the war unless and until the House of Representatives votes in his thirteenth amendment to the Constitution, the law abolishing slavery.

It is, as widely reported, a great performance: complex, mobile, wry, calling up its inheritance – particularly from Henry Fonda in John Ford’s superb Young Mr Lincoln (1939); again Lincoln is repeatedly seen from the back in silhouette, moving out from everyday life into history. Day-Lewis gives us Lincoln’s storytelling in a weary, rather reedy voice, and his slow, stooped ways of moving round – Quixote-like, he’s always too tall for his horse – communicate the private burdens; one son has died young, another (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is insisting on his right to enlist. Sally Field does an anxious, matronly and overwrought Mary Todd Lincoln, who wants that enlistment forbidden; the resulting marital screaming match is at the centre of the film. Very powerfully, she reminds Abe of what’s at stake in the exercise of power, though he never looks likely to forget it. Taking in the anxieties of the appealing youngest son (Chase Edmunds), visible up to the moment of Lincoln’s death, this is one version in which public and private are shown as thickly entangled.

The man’s earthiness, and his grasp of realpolitik are major elements in the story; if, as it’s said, he was “the purest man in America” he also knew what kinds of dealing and trading had to be done to win. Among his aides, David Strathairn’s William Seward and Tommy Lee Jones’s limping, cranky Thaddeus Stevens are rewards in themselves. The political struggle inside the House is great choreography, and marvellous verbal battle as well; the franchise for African Americans is foreshadowed as a threat, and what next – “votes for women!”? That outlandish possibility incites collective gasps.

There’s a lot of resonant, even high-flown dialogue, with the autodidact Lincoln irresistibly calling on Shakespeare whenever the fit takes him. There are elements of properly Spielbergian pageantry, stars and stripes aloft with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” all blowing in the wind after the vote has been won. But Lincoln is not material for author-centred analyses, unless you get some fun out of recalling the heroics from Indiana Jones and the rest; what matters here is the cinematic transmission of history. For a critical audience, the end shouldn’t invite triumphalism. The win for the thirteenth amendment was one step on a very long trek; there was another century of struggle toward civil rights, and almost another half-century before they got the first black president. Perhaps with Lincoln the American audience is being invited to claim a moment of national honour, consciously inheriting that story in a time of confusion; they’ve now spent a full decade fighting two completely useless wars.

Some of that confusion is registered in the film called Zero Dark Thirty. I shall comment soon on that film and others.

Sylvia Lawson’s latest book,
Demanding the Impossible: Essays on Resistance, is published by Melbourne University Publishing.

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