Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Cinema File #157: "Amour" Review

If you've read enough of my other reviews to get a good idea of the kind of movies I like, and the kind of movies I hate, you would probably correctly assume that I am the last person on Earth one would expect to enjoy a slow paced meditative French drama like Amour. That's certainly what I assumed going in, and as I began to doze off at about the ten minute mark, that assumption was nearly confirmed. But then, something strange and wonderful happened. As I slowly began to acquiesce to what this film was trying to do, I realized that I was not only enjoying myself, but I was engrossed in the film despite its almost punishingly inaccessible outward nature, and against all odds, I walked away incredibly moved by the experience.

Amour is the story of an elderly French couple dealing with the all too often inevitable tragedy of one partner succumbing to a degenerating condition before the other. I needn't explain any more than that, and save one minor wrinkle in the plot I couldn't possibly spoil this if I wanted to, because the film makes every attempt to tell what is a universal story as simply and as straightforward as possible. This isn't about the twists, and if you're looking for excitement or intrigue, it will surely disappoint. Amour is at its core a story of, well, amour, providing a brief look at the tail end of a relationship between two people who've loved each other so long that when the end comes for one of them, a new and final phase in their life together plays out as nonchalantly as the rest of it.

What many will no doubt confuse as a plot-less structure is in fact only free of plot-contrivances. Amour is a movie that takes great pains to unsentimentally remove any semblance of melodrama and eschew at every turn moments that would only happen in movies. This film is in a way an affront to the schmaltzy Terms of Endearment school of tear jerker cinema, with a realistic approach that displays more power and profundity in its most incidental scenes than most American films can muster with all the tricks of the trade to make you start weeping. You will never hear any music swelling to indicate that now is the time to cry, and you won't even see anyone on screen crying despite what would be for anyone an immensely tragic circumstance. But you will cry, or at least I did.

In any other movie, the events of this film would be a minor element designed to inject some maudlin pathos. Think Forrest Gump's mother dying, or any scene where the hero is forced to get on his knees and shed a few tears before moving on to whatever he has to do next. Of course, we never see what leads up to that moment or what comes after for the people taking care of the dying. We never see the once simple things turned into arduous tasks like going to the bathroom or exercising when you can barely move. And we never see the toll this takes on the people who love them and actually stick around to help. Amour tells that story in long form, reveling in the mundane banality of it to highlight its importance, where something as soul wrenching as the maintenance of a loved one's ensuing death becomes routine.

As I said, I cried at this movie, but then again, I'm easy when it comes to that. Up gets me at least twice, I start bawling every time Nipsy Russell starts singing his first song in The Wiz, and all you need are the first few chords of The Rainbow Connection before I'm on the floor. The thing is, I didn't start to feel it coming on at the moment you would think. When the wife dies at the end of this movie (again, not a spoiler), it is certainly very sad, but also somewhat of a relief having watched the struggle both of these people have gone through. I cried at the moment just after this, when the man, now alone, idly imagines his wife alive. Its a subtle moment without much fanfare; they don't embrace or say all the things they never got to say to each other when she was alive, because they don't need to. All they do is the same thing they always do, just enjoy each other's company. In fact I'm pretty sure they never actually say "I love you" to each other at all in the movie, and it is here you realize that it is unnecessary, because that sentiment was infused in every moment of their lives together up to that point. Hell, I'm even crying now just writing about it.

For many, Amour would be a hard mountain to climb, and just as I didn't expect to enjoy it myself, I would not be surprised by anyone telling me they couldn't get into it. Its slow, often going off into what seem like tangents to expand on the theme of daily life not stopping even for the dying, and it is shot in a way that I might call infuriatingly artsy. The opening shot of an audience at a recital, or the many points where characters are left alone in silence merely waiting almost thumb their nose at your desire to watch. But if you can get past all of that, there is something in here worth the time and effort for anyone who has ever been through this, or has ever cared about someone enough to imagine going through this. At least I found it, and I'm almost never the guy who does. If you haven't already, give it a chance.

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