Film: From Austria with Love

We’re used to the flowers. Not for their pleasing aesthetic qualities, but for the sentiment they express. Be mine. Thank you for a lovely weekend. And, of course, there’s the delicate occasion we’d rather not think about: so sorry for your loss.

Amour, this year’s surprise Best Picture Oscar nominee, does away with such generic sentimentality in the very first scene. Firemen force open the front door of a Paris apartment. In the bedroom they discover a body, not bludgeoned or torn to shreds, but dressed nicely in bed looking rather peaceful. No second guessing as to what this dearly departed cadaver is holding close to her chest. That’s right: lovingly cut and arranged flowers.

You think you know what it feels like to watch the love of your life wither away, step by agonizing step, from movies like, say, The Notebook? Leave it to Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke (Funny Games, The White Ribbon) to slap such gooey notions out of your system. His new movie is at once one of his harshest…and by far his most compassionate.

Get used to that apartment: You’re about to spend the next two hours becoming intimately acquainted with Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), retired music teachers in their eighties. We first see the longtime married couple together at a performance hall, right before the recital of one of Anne’s former pupils. In typical Haneke fashion, he leaves it up to you to pick Anne and Georges out from a very crowded auditorium. Maybe it’s a combination of subtle lighting and composition by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Seven), but it didn’t take long for me to spot them.

Not long after, Anne and Georges are having breakfast, when Anne suddenly goes catatonic, almost as if one of Funny Games‘ polite perpetrators had hit the pause button on his remote control. Georges desperately tries to get her to snap out of her stupor, to no avail. He leaves the kitchen to get dressed to take his wife to the doctor. When he returns, she appears to have returned to normal, although she has no memory of what just happened.

A stroke, as it turns out. One unsuccessful surgery on a blocked carotid artery later, Anne has been left partially paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair. Georges and Anne’s daughter Eva (Haneke muse Isabelle Huppert) tries to reason with Dad. It’s too much for you to handle. Won’t you send her to a nurs—uh, retirement community? Nothing doing, replies Georges. Anne, you see, made him promise to keep her out of a hospital and refuse to put her on life support. The remainder of Amour chronicles the way in which Georges carries out Anne’s wishes, and Haneke trains his clear-eyed gaze on her deteriorating health and his gallant, heroic steadfastness. Much ink has been spilled on the ways Riva (Hiroshima, mon amour), a former screen siren, surrenders herself to her role in such gut-wrenching fashion. (At 85, she becomes the oldest Best Actress Oscar nominee.) It’s Trintignant’s less showy performance, however, that ultimately prevents Haneke’s film from becoming a tough slog.

Many scenes, such as a glimpse at Anne’s difficulty in doing something as seemingly simple as reading in bed, play out in real time, with very few cuts. The minimalism Haneke opts for here is certainly preferable to the tear duct-draining melodrama a more conventional filmmaker might have gone for, but his understated reserve yields results that seemed, at least to me, a tad too muted for Amour‘s own good. Haneke has created a hermetic, insular environment in which he examines one husband’s devotion.

Which is not to say the film is completely devoid of the director’s signature bitterness. A heated exchange between Georges and a nurse whose work he deems neglectful brims with delicious name-calling. An earlier scene, in which Georges narrates to Anne how a funeral for a mutual acquaintance went absurdly awry showcases the schadenfreude we’ve come to cherish from Haneke. Other than these two welcome flourishes, though, the Caché auteur plays it admirably straight, which is to be commended. At the same time, and I never thought I would ever type this, I miss the old sadistic Haneke, the one whose cruelty made me curl up in a corner and gave me nightmares. Amour, the current front-runner for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, is a fine film, fully deserving of all the accolades it’s been receiving. I just wish I felt more passionate about it.

The Austrian invasion at multiplexes this weekend extends to a popcorn flick that’s been struggling at the box office. (It opened last week in tenth place.) Touted as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to leading-man, action-hero status, The Last Stand is every bit as junky and dumb as the title suggests. For most of its running time, it’s also great fun. Ah-nuld stars as Arizona small-town sheriff Ray Owens, who teams up with his minuscule police force and a gung-ho crackpot/comic relief (Johnny Knowville) to take down some nasty baddies intent on ensuring a Mexican drug kingpin with a penchant for fast cars (Eduardo Noriega) makes it across the border.

Pacing has always been the Achilles heel of Korean genre maven Kim Jee-Woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird), who makes his English-language debut here, but during The Last Stand‘s first hour, his poky, unhurried depiction of the film’s small-town setting works in the movie’s favor. Kim also allows his protagonist to act his age, and the film becomes a showcase for the screen icon’s wrinkles as much as his unstoppable brawn. The warm attention he gives, not just to his hero, but to the rest of the set-in-their-ways locals, stands in stark contrast to the noisy, wall-to-wall action most Hollywood directors would have indulged in.

The extended shootouts come later in Kim’s story, and by that point we’ve become more emotionally invested in what happens to the characters than most of the films The Last Stand resembles (and to which it pays homage). The highlight for action geeks is a cleverly conceived car chase inside a cornfield, which breathes some new life into a shopworn trope. This rollicking demolition derby is proud of its B-movie roots, and it celebrates its disreputable genre trappings with flair and creativity.

Amour opens Friday at the Tower Theater (towertheatermiami.com), AMC Sunset Place and Fort Lauderdale’s Gateway Theatre (thegatewaytheatre.com). The Last Stand continues delivering slam-bang mayhem in wide release.

About Ruben Rosario

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