Thursday, October 11, 2012

Reverend’s Reviews: Music of the Heart

Georges and Anne are 80-something, retired music teachers.  They live in a comfortable Parisian apartment and are sincerely enjoying one another and their “golden years” together.  But when Anne’s health suddenly starts to decline, the true test of the couple’s love begins.

Amour, winner of the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and Austria’s entry in the 85th annual Academy Awards, won’t open in the US until just before Christmas, but Los Angeles-area members of the press were recently treated to early screenings.  The latest work by acclaimed writer-director Michael Haneke (who was previously honored at Cannes for his films The White Ribbon, Cache and The Piano Teacher) is a thoughtful, unsentimental — though not unfeelingexamination of long-term romantic commitment.  Leave your rose-tinted glasses at the door.

As husband and wife as well as teachers and parents to their professional-musician daughter (played by Isabelle Huppert), Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, veteran of over 100 films including such classics as A Man and a Woman, Z and The Conformist) and Anne (the utterly heartbreaking Emmanuelle Riva) have given life their all.  As is typically the case for all of us, however, they don’t begin to fully realize the quality and value of their relationship until it becomes clear that it is coming to an end. 


Anne has a mini-stroke one morning during breakfast, which is followed soon after by a more severe event.  Partly paralyzed as a result and requiring more and more assistance from Georges as time goes on, we watch as Anne becomes utterly dependent and, ultimately, unable even to communicate intelligibly.  Georges and their daughter struggle with their own helplessness as they strive to accept Anne's impending death.  As far as plot goes, that's about it.

I found Amour stunning, in a good way.  As I posted simply on Facebook immediately after seeing it: “Wow.”  It is a near-perfect movie (a couple of horror movie-ish nightmares Georges has are Haneke's only missteps) that deals so well and sensitively with aging, facing death, relationships and, yes, love.  My inner moral theologian questions a startling plot development late in the film, but it is a fairly minimal concern in light of Georges' devotion to his wife.  Trintignant and Riva are seriously deserving of Academy Awards consideration and I really hope they are nominated.

Given the characters' professional background, it is only appropriate that music play a fairly large part in Amour.  Much of it is provided by French pianist Alexandre Tharaud, who makes his acting debut in the film as Anne's star pupil (appropriately named Alexandre).  He provides lovely interpretations of Bach, Chopin and Ravel here that serve as at times joyous, at times mournful soundtrack.  As the film illustrates so elegantly and movingly, the music of love has many shades.


Conversely, director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) forgoes music entirely in her new adaptation of Wuthering Heights (now playing in New York City and opening in LA tomorrow), save for an occasional hymn sung by the actors and an end titles song performed by current country-folk sensation Mumford & Sons.  Arnold's approach to Emily Bronte's classic, 19th-century saga of tortured romance emphasizes the natural sounds of its remote setting.  The result is visceral, at times savagely so, as Arnold removes virtually all the costume drama artifice that has adorned prior film versions.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it chiefly concerns the love of Heathcliff, a poor orphan living in the Liverpool streets, for Catherine, the daughter of a well-intentioned Christian farmer who takes Heathcliff in.  Though Heathcliff is treated as little more than a servant by most in the household, Catherine also develops feelings for him.  Alas, Catherine eventually decides to marry a wealthier man, breaking Heathcliff's heart but setting him on a years-long quest to prove himself worthy of her.

Arnold also made the bold artistic choice to cast a pair of black actors as younger and older Heathcliff.  Though the lad was described by Bronte as having dark skin, Heathcliff has traditionally been played by the caucasian likes of Laurence Olivier, Timothy Dalton, Ralph Fiennes and Tom Hardy.  Newcomers Solomon Glave and James Howson are excellent here, and the camera loves them (Of note, Wuthering Heights won the Best Cinematography award at the 2011 Venice Film Festival; it is also somewhat curiously shot in full-screen/non-widescreen format).  The remainder of the largely non-professional cast makes less of an impression, though the performances of all concerned are acceptable.


Making Heathcliff unquestionably black naturally adds a layer of racial tension to the story, which gets awkward at times when white characters hurl the decidedly non-Bronte "N-word" at Heathcliff.  Similarly, Heathcliff uses modern vulgarities at one point to describe his oppressors.  Arnold also heightens the sexual tension and content in ways that I'm not sure Bronte would approve of.  Such license serves to diminish the characters rather than bring any greater understanding or appreciation of them to today's audiences.

Despite the director's interesting take on this classic work of literature, I'll stick with the revered 1939 movie version that starred Olivier and Merle Oberon, even though it took its own liberties with the source material.  Notably, it only covers the first half of Bronte's book and therefore ends on a much less tragic note.

Reverend’s Ratings:
Amour: A-
Wuthering Heights: C+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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