Film Reviews

Amour & Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir

Published February 23, 2013

As a Valentine’s Day promotion this year, Madman Entertainment put together a package of eight DVD releases intended to take the “guesswork” out of finding a gift for one’s nearest and dearest. The selection was decidedly off-beat, including A Declaration of War, about a couple whose child has cancer; A Royal Affair – an historical tragedy from Denmark; and Your Sister’s Sister, a love triangle between three remarkably unattractive personalities.
It suggested the ‘Rom Com’ genre is not actually Madman’s strong suit. This was nothing to be ashamed about, as such films are usually insipid and formulaic. The happy ending can be taken for granted, so the only residual interest lies in the number of complications littering the path of true love.
Nevertheless, all the Madman offerings seem light and cheerful alongside Amour, a film that might well be avoided by anyone unwilling to confront the harsh realities of aging. Since that means almost everybody, one must look to the quality of this stark, unsentimental portrayal to find a reason for fronting up at the cinema.
Amour has won so many awards, director Michael Haneke has probably had to extend his trophy cabinet. It has struck a chord with every viewer who has been willing to sit down and absorb its melancholy lessons about the indignities of old age and the responsibilities of love. It would be frivolous to describe Amour as a sad film – it goes beyond sad, achieving a level of realism that imparts an importance to every little detail as a step on the journey to death.
One might interpret the title ironically, as this story is so different from those ‘feel good’ films that end at the point when the lovers are united at last. Yet Haneke’s aim seems to be the very antithesis of irony: he takes us away from the ecstatic moment when a relationship reaches its moment of maximum, shared intensity. We are plunged into the twilight of love, when two people who have spent their lives with each other confront the spectre of bodily decay and final separation.
In this scenario the intensity is even greater, although virtually nothing happens apart from the long, slow countdown to oblivion. This is the time when one must pay the bill for the pleasures and comforts love has provided. It is a test of the strength of those emotional ties built up over decades.
Anne and Georges are retired music teachers, living in a spacious apartment in Paris. They lead a quiet, orderly existence, going to concerts, listening to music and reading. Quite suddenly one morning, while sitting at the kitchen table, Anne has an of attack that leaves her staring vacantly into space for a few minutes. This is the beginning of her decline, a process that continues inexorably throughout the film.
Georges promises he won’t send her to hospital, taking on the tasks of a full-time carer, with part-time assistance from a nurse. As her condition deteriorates, Anne becomes partially paralysed, then bed ridden. In time she becomes incontinent. She begins to lose her powers of speech, and her mind wanders in the mists of dementia. In moments of lucidity she wishes only for death.
Georges has to deal with each new problem while Anne lies dying in slow motion. The advice and assistance of their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), is merely a source of bitterness. The daughter cannot understand what her parents are going through, and her presence disrupts the precarious equilibrium the couple have established.
There are moments in Amour when one feels like sighing or wincing, as each new indignity piles up. One cannot exaggerate the importance of the performances by veteran actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. It is their commitment to the lead roles that transforms a near-static scenario into a compelling piece of cinema. The 85-year-old Riva has been nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Anne, which must have been one of the greatest challenges in a career given over to serious, difficult roles.
After watching Amour, I pulled out Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) and watched the young Riva in this dream-like narrative. At the age of 32 she had a face that might be described as handsome but never pretty, along with tremendous screen presence. Part of the power of this film is the painful spectacle of this aloof beauty being dragged down to the lowest level of survival. I didn’t repeat the experiment for Trintignant, another mainstay of the French New Wave, but I can never remember him in a role where he has had to practise such restraint, saying more with silence than with words.
It’s hard to know what to make of this year’s Academy Awards when a film such as Amour can receive as many nominations as Les Misérables. The gulf between this spare, unflinching story of two old people in an apartment, and the sentimental overload of the big budget musical is wider than the Great Australian Bight. The viewer who claims to love one of these films wouldn’t last ten minutes with the other.
Roman Polanski has the unenviable distinction of being a film director whose life has overshadowed his art. No-one would believe a script about a Polish boy who has his family destroyed by the Nazis, loses his wife to a gang of deranged murderers, and then becomes demonised as a sexual predator by the American justice system. Between these earth-shattering events Polanski has presented us with such classics as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1974).
In 2003 Polanski was given the Oscar for best director, for The Pianist, but in 2009 found himself under house arrest in Switzerland, as American authorities sought to extradite him for the offences of thirty years ago.
Polanski’s life has been charted in book after book, but it attains a greater immediacy when expounded on film in an extended interview with his friend, Andrew Braunsberg.
Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir is a blunt, artless documentary that begins with Braunsberg turning up at the door of Polanski’s home in Switzerland. The two men, who have known each other since Polanski’s days in London, shooting Repulsion (1965), sit and chew over the details of the filmmaker’s life. This 90 minute discussion is interspersed with archival footage from the news, and from Polanski’s back catalogue.
Nothing could be more straightforward, with director Laurent Bouzereau acting as artisan rather than auteur. It is a deliberate tactic to suggest Polanski has nothing to hide.
At the age of 79, Polanski is composed and remarkably well preserved for someone who has lived on a roller coaster. He talks calmly about his experiences in the Warsaw ghetto during the war, including the loss of his mother who was imprisoned and murdered in Auschwitz. Part of his childhood was reputedly drawn upon by his friend, Jerzy Kosinski, in the brutal novel, The Painted Bird (1965).
One of the most interesting parts of Polanski’s story is his swift transition from being a student at the National Film School in Lodz, in the years after the war, to being one of the major cinematic talents of the 1960s. He learned the trade from the great Polish director, Andrzej Wajda, appearing as an actor in A Generation (1954).
Polanski made his mark with a series of short films and the psychological thriller, Knife in Water (1962), which earned him a nomination for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards of 1963. He had no opportunity to capitalise on this success in Poland, getting his next major break in London, where he directed three features and met American actress, Sharon Tate, whom he would marry in 1968.
That same year Polanski moved to Hollywood and made Rosemary’s Baby, a film that redefined the horror genre, taking it out of the realm of cartoon monsters and vampires. In this chilling tale, Polanski shows us almost nothing, allowing our imagination to do all the work.
Polanski was visiting London in August, 1969, when a pregnant Sharon Tate and a group of friends were murdered by Charles Manson and his disciples in one of history’s most notorious home invasions. After this inconceivable horror Polanski was traumatised and harrassed by the media. In the retelling, after so many years, the murder has taken on a surreal aspect.
The next great upheaval followed in 1977, when Polanski was charged with having sexual relations with a 13 year-old girl, during a photo shoot for Vogue magazine. He pleaded guilty and threw himself on the mercy of the courts. What happened next was another indictment of the American justice system, as he found himself facing a long stint in prison at the behest of a judge who seemed to sacrifice due process for sheer sadism.
No-one can condone Polanski’s actions, including himself, but his experiences in court were extraordinary in a land where hardened criminals routinely escape with plea bargains. Even the girl involved, Samantha Geimer, said it was obvious the judge wasn’t concerned about her, and “was orchestrating some little show.”
When the entire case was reignited in 2009, Polanski was again portrayed as a sexual criminal, which was harsh on his wife and young children. In this film he is not after our sympathy, merely our understanding. By any standards he has paid for his offence, apologised, compensated the victim, and lived for more than thirty years in the glare of the ugliest publicity. If Polanski’s work continues to move us it may be because his own experience has shown him that life is more precarious and edgy than one might ever suspect.
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Amour, France/Germany/Austria, rated M, 127 mins
Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, UK/Italy/Germany, rated M, 90 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, February 23, 2013