This movie’s elegance begins with its title.
Sans attribute, definition, nor maxim à la Love Story and its shibboleth “love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
(This fallacious, overused, accepted (!) cliché is just one of many things director Arthur Hiller should be sorry for.)
Even those detached from this year’s Oscars have likely heard about this depressing, hard to watch, slow-paced, subtitled movie that stars old people who die.
Those who paid to see Men In Black 3 more than once and will be watching the Oscars because Seth MacFarlane is hosting would be alarmed to learn this movie is actually about them.
The only difference between Movie Snobs and cretins who won’t see this movie but will pay for re-runs at the cinema is that some of us have been on the trip depicted, and some have not …yet.
Le Movie Snob has been on this trip and would venture to guess that those who haven’t …yet … might experience this movie differently; I can’t speak for the untraveled, but welcome their comments.
Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) dies. This is not a spoiler; this is the first scene.
Austrian director Michael Haneke then goes back in time, to the recent past, to tell and depict the story of Anne’s death.
Anne and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintingant) appear to have had a long, happy marriage. They are elderly but independent and active. We see them attend a piano concert by a student of hers Alexandre Tharaud (playing himself).
The next morning we see them eating breakfast, conversing. Their conversation continues as Georges steps out of the breakfast nook when suddenly Anne freezes in time.
What’s going on? Is this meant to happen? But then we see Georges perplexed as well, especially when Anne unfreezes as if nothing has happened. At first Georges chastises Anne for behaving so unusually then begins to realize, at the same moment as the audience, that Anne has had a stroke.
And thus the trip begins, as it most often does, it passengers are boarded unawares, on vessels they didn’t chose, with no itinerary. Their world, in every way, has changed forever.
We next see Anne in a wheelchair, her right hand has become a rigid claw. Thus debilitated, Georges is conscripted into the role of caretaker.
Although Anne’s body has begun to fail her, her mind is still sharp. She is happy when her student Alexandre pays a visit.
Alexandre is polite, but he doesn’t know how/when/if/should he acknowledge what has befallen his teacher.
After strained pleasantries, his curiosity overtakes his better judgement when he boldly asks her what has happened.
Anne is not rude, but curtly states that she is now paralyzed on her right side and that she doesn’t wish to discuss the matter further. Alexandre’s agonizing awkwardness is given a merciful rapid reprieve when Anne requests that Alexandre play for her.
What do you say to someone whose passion is playing the piano and will now never play again?
In my opinion, as a Movie Snob and having been forced on this trip, this scene illuminates what is so brilliant about this movie: not only does the world become upended, so does every interpersonal interaction.
A neighbor, with whom we saw the couple interact the evening they went to the concert, behaves differently with them. He’s an immigrant and it seems he and his wife have regularly run this errand for the older couple.
When he brings over some groceries after Anne’s stroke, he behaves differently. As he leaves, he tells Georges to let him know if he can help in any way, but he doesn’t mean it. He says it because he’s nervous, anxious to leave the apartment that the grim reaper has marked.
When his wife delivers groceries post-stroke, she shows visible discomfort in at first refusing, then finally accepting the gratuity Georges has apparently regularly offered. It’s clear she has less means and needs the money more than Georges, and her hesitation is insulting. My conclusion is that she is trying to show sympathy, but her awkward behavior ultimately highlights Georges’ social isolation.
The most dramatically altered relationship is between the couple and their daughter, Eve (brilliantly played by Isabelle Huppert). I have read several reviews that have either ignored or dismissed her role. She appears in only three or four scenes. I urge you to pay close attention to everything thing she says, every gesture she makes in every scene.
This movie is about many things, but I believe what is revealed in her scenes are the most important part of the movie.
I have read several reviews that have simply dismissed her character as unsympathetic (true); one particularly asinine critic questioned whether the relationship with the daughter “worked.”
That moron might be interested in what the director said in an interview about the film:
“It’s certainly the case that our society doesn’t like dealing with certain issues – everything that doesn’t represent success or deals with illness, anything that’s not productive, doesn’t create wealth, and that’s banned to the sidelines… that’s not the subject of my film but it certainly develops from it. It’s the same with old people. You don’t see much of them in daily life and very few families live together. They’re all split up. But my film doesn’t try to change that. It would be impossible for it to change that. It’s something that all you can do is reflect on and try to be aware of.”
This movie is hard to watch not only because we are not spared the indignities of physical decline, but because Haneke paces his movie unevenly. There are uncomfortable pauses. Most of the scenes use the master shot and don’t cut to individual shots in the manner to which most of us have become accustomed. This unpredictable pace makes the movie feel more like real life.
Allez au ciné! Go fall in love with this movie.
The film’s lead actors, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintingant are likely only familiar to the most franco of cinephiles. Both are accomplished veteran actors and the casting is as exciting as that of Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn in On Golden Pond.
Jean-Louis Trintingant has starred in over one hundred movies. One of his earliest roles was in the film …And God Created Woman, the iconic movie that introduced the world to Brigitte Bardot. He was the lead in A Man And A Woman, a French movie enjoyed unusual success in the US. It won two Oscars including Best Foreign Language Movie in 1967.
He is the equivalent to Paul Newman of French cinema: a long career starring in international movies, was passionate about racing cars when he was younger, and sadly, also tragically lost a child to unnatural causes.
Despite his successful international career, marriages to beautiful and famous actresses (Stéphane Audran and Nadine Marquand) his life has been marred by tragedy. His first child, a daughter, Marie was born in 1962. She was stunningly beautiful and on her way to becoming a star in her own right.
In 2003, she was shooting a movie in Vilnius, Lithuania. She had been dating a famous punk rock star, Bernard Cantat of Noir Désir who came to visit her. They had an argument that became physical; she sustained injuries that put her in a coma from which she never emerged. This crime dominated the media in France in the same way as the O.J. Simpson case did in the US. In both cases, justice was eluded. Cantat was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to eight years in prison by a Lithuanian court, but was released for good behavior after having served only half his sentence.
Trintingant’s second daughter Pauline died in infancy of SIDS in 1969.
He has a son Vincent, born in 1973.
The role of Georges was written expressly for Trintignant who said of his director in Entertainment Weekly: “I would say that he’s probably the greatest of all the directors that I’ve worked with. I’d put Haneke right up there at the top.”
Emmanuelle Riva’s acting career started more than sixty years ago. She became famous in one of the classic films of the French New Wave, Alain Renais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour. She has appeared in over forty movies and is the oldest Best Actress nominee in Oscar history.
Lest you assume, as most would, that playing half of a married couple would be something she could relate to from life experience, consider her response to an interviewer who made the same assumption, addressing her as Madame (Mrs.):
“What do you mean do I prefer being called Madame or Mademoiselle? Are you trying to find out if I am married? If so I can tell you that I have never wanted to be married and you can call me Mademoiselle or Madame as you wish. Perhaps at my age Madame has more charm, it’s more dignified. But I could call myself Mademoiselle.”