POSTED ON FEBRUARY 13, 2013:
Death and Drugs
No rock and roll, depressing all around
Amour, a title as aptly simple as its film's intent, is nothing short of pure cinema, a work not at all distracted by the whims of the mass market. Aimed squarely at audiences who seek out sustenance that resonates on an emotional and human level, Amour is, as a result, nearly a total bummer. But then its writer and director, Michael Haneke has never been a shits-and-giggles kind of guy.
Achy Breaky Heart. Sad without resorting to exploitation, Amour is a quiet reflection of love at the end of life.
Bursting into the American indie consciousness with 1997's Funny Games, the German-born auteur made clear his intent to wave a wagging middle finger at his audience. Why, after all, would they pay good money to see a movie about a seemingly nice family being utterly tortured and destroyed by a pair of psychopathic kids? He even goes so far as to have the antagonists break the fourth wall to ask the audience directly. His statement about the commodification of violence in American films (and our blasé and morbid fascination with it) is meant neither as entertainment or art. It's practically a manifesto -- which makes Amour, by contrast, a sort of love letter to our better angels.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Three Colors: Red) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, Three Colors: Blue, my favorite of Krzysztof Kie lowski's Three Colors Trilogy) are a couple in the December of their long marriage -- and still quite happy with their choice. They are retired piano teachers, living out their last years in a stately Parisian apartment and only tangentially connected to their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert, I Heart Huckabees), her husband Geoff (William Shimell, Certified Copy) and their presumable grandchildren. The attention of Anne's former student Alexandre (real-life piano prodigy, Alexandre Tharaud) who has gone on to become internationally famous and successful, inspires far more excitement than visits from Eva. Georges and Anne's relationship with their daughter is distant but amiable.
Over breakfast, Anne becomes briefly, suddenly catatonic and Georges senses the canary in the coal mine. Anne has a blockage of her carotid artery resulting in a stroke that mildly paralyzes the right side of her body. After an operation to cure her fails, and owing to her hatred of hospitals, Georges promises her to take care of her at home and shield her from discomfort. Anne, a keenly smart and independent woman, already wants to leave the life she sees ahead of her.
Georges, of course, is doting and loyal, a kind and gentle husband (though surely he wasn't always, "You can be a monster," Anne says, "but you are also kind.") and proceeds to keep up his end of a bargain Anne doesn't really want to fulfill: not leaving Georges all alone.
In a pop culture sense, the cynical post-'90s sense, Amour would be a Seinfeldian "Gene-pick" called The Pain and the Yearning. There's nothing here for someone who wants to see Prognosis Negative. There's no soundtrack music but for the sparing pieces of lovely piano sonatas. Every scene is perfectly blocked and the camera moves only when it absolutely must. The focus is on pure, quiet performance and cathartic narrative. It's about the price we pay for the joys of love, which might seem exploitive if it weren't so genuine and insightful. In a weird way this is a fantasy for married couples.
It wouldn't work without the stunningly expert turns from Trintignant and Riva. They give such subtle, regal, and finely detailed performances that it's hard to overstate how integral they are in drawing us into Haneke's warmly fatalistic tale. No one's trying to pull heartstrings, though their plight is so utterly sad that the lack of schmaltz is almost a miracle. The sense of reality Trintignant and Riva imbue into their characters isn't just Oscar-worthy; the restrained force of their performances breaks through the fourth wall without ever noticing the camera.
Michael Haneke is a master at elucidating these emotional depths. Whether it's his sense of mise-en-scène, which reveals the truth of his characters and the arc of their lives with understated strokes, his gorgeous and painterly compositions that render the grandeur of lives lived in both small spaces and small moments, or the cold truth that while love might never end, the ones we love do; Haneke takes us down rarely traveled emotional paths into the forest of inevitability -- crossing the border between the light of the future and the dark canopy of the forsaken.
Please tell me this isn't Stephen Soderbergh's last movie. It's not as though Side Effects is utterly bad -- though it toys with badness, especially at the end -- but the pinnacle of his brilliant, 20-year plus career (with his assertion that this is Soderbergh's swan song) should rise higher than better, past films in his oeuvre.
Sex, Lies, and Videotape put Soderbergh on the indie map and he's done a stellar job of riding that line between low-budget individualism and mainstream sensibilities ever since. How else could one explain the one-two-punch of Schizopolis and Out of Sight? One is an absurdist, stream-of-consciousness mind-fuck comedy that most only saw on IFC (if at all), leading to a perfectly balanced, audience-friendly Elmore Leonard adaptation filtered through a vibrant, exciting New Wave aesthetic. The other was both hugely entertaining and cinematically nutritious.
That pairing largely defines his one-for-art and one-for-commerce (while keeping both in mind) modus operandi, that has delivered blockbusters like the Ocean's Trilogy and Erin Brockovich to labors of love like his epic Che or the distribution game-changer, Bubble (which was more or less the inception for the idea of concurrent On Demand and theatrical releases). The guy made a movie about male strippers that is largely regarded as one of the best films of 2012. That takes skill and vision -- a calculated and expert interest in revealing characters and stories that are inherently compelling, almost despite the audience. A cynic might think he just wanted a bunch of women to show up for Chippendales: The Movie. Perhaps he should have quit then.
Because it certainly seems like Side Effects starts with that kind of skill. But what begins as a somewhat exciting psychological thriller, a Persona-like exploration of a woman's victimhood to her mental illness, devolves into something far less consequential and satisfying.
In a Daze.
Emily Taylor (Mara Rooney, The Social Network) is a 28-year old wife to Martin (Channing Tatum, Magic Mike) a Wall Street stock broker who's been serving a four year stint in prison for insider trading. Upon his release they set about to putting their lives back together, but Emily is suffering from severe depression. When she decides to drive her car at full speed into the wall of a parking garage, in an apparent attempt to kill herself, she's assigned a shrink in the form of Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).
Banks is newly married and strapped for cash due to his wife's unemployment and their new downtown condo. He takes on the case as he would any other, assigning Emily a steady diet of Zoloft and frequent office visits. Emily doesn't take to the therapy well, so Banks consults her former psychiatrist, Victoria Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Intolerable Cruelty) who recommends a new drug (the fictional) Ablixia, which promises better efficacy with fewer ... you know, side effects.
And it seemingly works. Encouraged by the results, and a need for cash, Banks becomes a consultant for the drug's makers. When Emily begins to suffer bouts of sleepwalking, Banks treats it with another layer of pharmacology. After all, there's a pill for everything.
But when Emily discovers her husband has been murdered with no explanation, Dr. Banks quickly finds himself a pawn of his clinical partners, the legal system, and a deeper mystery that he must solve in order to save his own life.
The faults of Side Effects lie largely with the script by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion). Never wanting to show its cards the plot becomes something of an Agatha Christie mystery, which on its own would be fine if it didn't try so hard to fake out the audience with a story that takes huge liberties with reality while failing its promising characters. I haven't seen a lazier depiction of the American criminal justice system since Dancer in the Dark -- which at least pulled its emotional weight while being manipulative in a genuine way.
Here Burns wants to craft a mystery embossed with seeming indictments of Big Pharma, the culture of psychiatry and the criminal justice system, all of which are cannon fodder for a rote, ultimately conventional, boilerplate Movie of the Week tale.
But the reason it isn't bad is because of Soderbergh. His sense of theme, his visual expertise -- touching on repeating forms narratively and visually -- plus his skill with actors elevate the source to make it compelling, a trick that's helped by Mara Rooney and Jude Law. Rooney recalls Mia Farrow, with her wallflower delicacy that hides deeper aberrations, while Law acts as the hero of his own fate: a character to root for despite Law's inherent, synthetic coldness.
That lends Side Effects a tone that I enjoyed on a somewhat Cronenbergian level. But the lack of nuance along with plot holes the size of the ozone layer make me hope that Soderbergh will reconsider this whole retirement thing. He's too young to stop courting greatness, or to go out like this.
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