Frontally speaking

By Fernando Ganzo

(leer en castellano / lire en français)

A man and a woman, both elderly. She will slowly die in the course of the film. This is a story about someone dying; her physical decline and how they both cope with it. That´s the plot of Amour, by Michael Haneke. Something everyone in the audience has experienced or will experience. The vertigo we feel while leaning out to that cliff is even bigger, for the characters are played by two actors familiar to the audience since they were both young: Emannuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. An obvious choice for a filmmaker who thinks he knows us better than we know ourselves. The film is quite moving, sometimes, in its reserve—and reserve is very much a rarity in Haneke´s films. For instance, when he is carrying her body and it looks as if they were learning to dance again. Reserve is so uncharacteristic of his films (he never refrained from filming something on those grounds) that in Amour we can feel his weaknesses and fears—he who thought himself so sage. His first fear: sentimentalism. First error: to mistake sentimentalism with sentimental. Second fear: having to renounce to a frontal approach. Second error: being frontal when there is no point in it.

I will describe both t/errors with an example: the scene in which her old pupil, the pianist, visits them once she is already handicapped and she asks him to play the piano for her. At the beginning of the film we had seen a frontal shot of the audience of a theatre as they arrive for a concert that we will never see. When the pianist is playing at her house we get the opposite: Haneke is afraid of a sentimental sprout, so he doesn´t let us see her emotions as he plays Beethoven and all we get is a frontal shot of him. Summarizing: Haneke censors the sentimental side of his film. Not only that, but he is brutally frontal when it should not: concerning death. Heraclitus once wrote that both death and the sun should not be looked at directly. When Haneke chooses to deal with death frontally, he is making something trivial out of it. Feelings, on the other hand, can only be approach sideways, as Schubert understood very well in his last sonatas (with its serene and melancholic acceptance of the pain and sadness that leads to the end of a life; very much his own, for he died in terrible pain). Haneke turns to music as if looking for help, and his characters are spiritually saved by music as much as they are trivialized by Haneke´s camera.

If I keep talking about a frontal approach to characters and subjects in film is on account of a peculiar conversation that I had the other day with a film critic from Argentina (who left without telling me his name). It might be interesting to transcribe it for you.

I am walking out of the cinema from watching Paradies: Liebe, by Ulrich Seidl, when I see a man (the guy from Argentina) under some unbearable suffering.

– Are you alright?

– ¿You saw that? –he told me; as his wrath increased- Saw the way they were all laughing? Funny, huh?

– Well, what can we do?

– Do you think it´s ok to laugh like that and enjoy yourself while watching a woman being exposed so frontally? –that´s when I became aware of the frontal issue.

– No. I´m a bit downhearted myself, but I suppose we can´t jump over the entire world.

– But the entire world is collapsing! Either we jump over it or we sink with it! Did you listen to that laughter when she was spraying her pussy with perfume?

He was talking about a specific scene, so I´ll describe it. The character is a lady that takes care of people with Down syndrome—and the film mocks people with Down syndrome from the very beginning. She´s about fifty, blonde and quite round behind her hips. She goes on vacation to Kenya, where is frequent for older women to have young lovers; young guys sleep with them for money because they have become less desirable as they are getting on years. She feels uncomfortable after the first encounter of that sort; the young guy is a black man who doesn´t have an appetite for sexual foreplay, so he goes straight to the point, what annoys her. A new kid seduces her and makes her believe that he is really in love with her (only to get more money out of her, in the end, when he argues that he needs money for some medical treatment that his family supposedly needs). As it happens, they don´t have sex until their fourth date, and before they do, we see her (shot very much frontally) sitting on his bed with the dress on. She fears he might not like her on account of her age and her built, so she sprays some perfume on her neck, on both armpits and, ultimately, between her legs. That´s the part that everyone laughs at.

– Did you saw the way they laughed? –insisted the mysterious guy from Argentina-. Those guys have never understood a John Ford film or any film, for that matter. They never will! They haven´t understand anything at all! None whatsoever!

I could swear he was crying by then; shortly after we parted and we both went our ways. I can quite picture him in a bar unlike the ones here in Cannes. In the sort of place that nothing recalls Seidl, or Haneke, or Garrone, or Mungiu, or Ken Loach… An all-star team. An all-star team for the Croisette.

Translated from Spanish by Hugo Obregón

On competition
Director: Michael Haneke.
Script: Michael Haneke.
Cinematography: Darius Khondji.
Editing: Nadine Muse, Monika Willi.
Sound: Guillaume Sciama.
Casting: Isabelle Huppert, Jean-Louis Trintignant,
William Shimell, Emmanuelle Riva,
Rita Blanco, Laurent Capelluto.

On Competition
Director: Ulrich Seidl.
Script: Ulrich Seidl, Veronika Franz.
Cinematography: Wolfgang Thaler, Edward Lachman.
Editing: Christof Schertenleib.
Sound: Erik Mischijew, Matz Müller.
Casting: Maria Hofstätter, Margarete Tiesel,
Inge Maux, Peter Kazungu.