MIFF 2012: Reviews of Amour and Berberian Sound Studio

Welcome to day eleven of my coverage of the Melbourne International Film Festival. You can read previous entries here: Day One / Day Two / Day ThreeDay Four / Day Five / Day Six / Day SevenDay Eight / Day Nine / Day Ten. Enjoy.

 

Amour

Amour

This Palme d’Or winning film from director Michael Haneke (Funny Games) is a brutal exercise that unflinchingly demonstrates the inescapable indignity of advanced age. Haneke has a propensity for dark, difficult material and despite its title, Amour (Love) is no exception. Like all of Haneke’s films, this is a rigid, considered affair that encourages intellectual speculation. Some have pegged this as a tender love story, but in actuality, this is cinema at its most bleak. I took very little away from Amour; I found it to be ultimately pointless and a nose-thumbing counterpoint to one of cinema’s most transportative qualities: the affirmation of life.

Amour follows loving, octogenarian couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). After Anne has a minor stroke, Georges is forced to care for her. Anne’s situation begins to steadily worsen and Georges is forced to watch the gradual degradation of the woman he loves.

While I am utterly simplifying it, it seems that Haneke’s grand statement is: we all get old and die with no dignity. Of course there are all kinds of intellectual subtexts that you could interpret, but essentially this is a film about two old French people that are housebound…and one of them is dying. In terms of sheer plot mechanics, that’s it. I know, the plot is not the point of a film like this. But Haneke refuses to give us anything else – a man chasing a pigeon for three, uninterrupted minutes may be symbolically rich, but it is cinematically inert.  I’m all for hard hitting material, but this film seems so intent on blocking out any form of romanticism or hope that I found it oppressive.

The acting is superb; Haneke’s script has very little, if any, outward emotionality and Trintignant and Riva convey their despair through glances and inflections. Every element of this film has Haneke’s trademark repression and, thankfully, the actors find a way to inject some small microcosm of humanity into Amour.

By the time Amour had finished I was pissed off. Though the critical consensus would argue otherwise (and does), I thought this film was viciously nihilistic. It might seem like intellectually stimulating fare to Haneke, but forcing the audience to witness mortality in all of its fragility feels cruelly misanthropic. I don’t need to see a naked, distressed, elderly woman being scrubbed while she cries ‘It hurts, it hurts’. Life is full of unfair horrors; that is why we go to the cinema. Amour is the cinematic equivalent of telling a child Santa doesn’t exist.

Two Stars

***

Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio

This is a truly maddening film. Berberian Sound Studio is immaculately directed, brilliantly constructed and well performed…until the last act. The wheels come off Berberian like few films in recent memory. It is the cinematic equivalent of engaging the entire pub with a well constructed, long winded joke, pausing near the punchline to order a drink and then going ‘What was I saying? Oh never mind.’

Set in the 1970s, Berberian tells the story of British sound engineer Gilderoy (Toby Jones), a timid man that has been requested to work on an Italian film. Upon arriving, Gilderoy is dismayed to find the studio disorganised and the content of the film — a giallo slasher about the occult named The Equestrian Vortex — shockingly violent. Gilderoy sets out to create the gruesome foley track for Vortex by smashing melons, chopping cabbages and blending tomato juice. But soon, the language barrier, unprofessional conduct and disturbing content of the film begin to wear on Gilderoy’s fragile mind.

Berberian starts of fantastically. Director Peter Strickland has a great eye and he manages to bombard you with images and small details that are smoothly edited together. Though often confined to a small studio, this film is always visually interesting. While it visually impresses, Berberian‘s sound design is superlative. In a clever move, we never witness the violence that Gilderoy sees. Instead, we are treated to Jones’s expressive face and a cavalcade of grotesque sound effects.

Halfway through this film I was convinced that I was watching some sort of minor masterpiece. I love films that have an unreliable narrator and I was engrossed in Jones’s portrayal of Gilderoy’s increasing discomfort. Unfortunately, this film enters Lynchian territory (read: it makes zero sense) in the last act and in an act of cinematic proctology, it disappears up its own arse. Berberian manages to undo almost all of its (considerable) good will with a jumble of non-sensical, avant-garde scenes that buck completely against what has come before. I judged this film’s effectiveness by my facial reactions. When the first bizarre turn happened, I raised my eyebrows. By its last shot, my face had turned into a full-blown scowl. When the credits rolled I heard a few audience members say ‘What the fuck?’, but not in a good way. My sentiments exactly.

Two Stars

 

Tomorrow’s Films: Il Capitano and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.

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