The key scene in Amour comes during the film’s second hour, in a scene in which Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tries to desperately to shield his concerned daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), from seeing her mother (Emmanuelle Riva) in her dying state. In response to her increasingly frenzied demand that she see her, Georges says, “None of all that deserves to be shown.” He eventually relents and apologizes for the concealment, but in that one line of dialogue, one can grasp the unmistakable touch of the film’s director, Michael Haneke: Georges may be afraid to confront the horrors of his wife’s slow death, but Haneke will surely force all of us in the audience to confront it, in all its agonizing ugliness.
If you’re looking for empathetic humanism in the contemplation of aging and dying, á la Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow or Yasujirô Ozu’s Tokyo Story, you won’t find it in Haneke’s carefully composed frames, ruthlessly prolonged takes, and generally detached stance. Amour plays like a dissection more than anything else, and however one reacts to it depends almost entirely on the emotional resources the individual viewer brings to it. Haneke, as usual, isn’t interested in holding your hand in that way.
There’s certainly something to be said for the kind of grappling with human mortality that Haneke attempts, and for much of Amour his brand of confrontation feels refreshingly honest and unflinching, with his usual theater-of-cruelty impulses held mostly in abeyance. As per the film’s title, the Austrian filmmaker is as much interested in George’s increasingly harried reactions to his wife’s gradual demise as he is in the demise itself. A secondary theme eventually emerges: How much of a role does love really play in Georges’s decision to keep Anne alive, despite Anne making it clear at one point that she doesn’t want to live in such a desiccated state? There’s more than a hint of a controlling streak to Georges, as evidenced in that aforementioned scene with Eva, but does that extend to his wife’s death as well?
In the film’s last half-hour, Haneke threatens to allow some of his usual finger-wagging impulses to get the better of him, through not only some fairly melodramatic plot twists (spoiler: Anne doesn’t die a natural death), but also through two scenes involving a stray pigeon that are risibly symbolic. Haneke’s “humanism” may still be arctic at best; if anything, he showed more persuasive empathy for human beings in The White Ribbon. But Amour nevertheless ultimately resonates not so much as a confrontation of creeping, inevitable death, but as an investigation of the ways the awareness of death can psychologically challenge the ties that bind people together.
Compared to the chilliness of Amour, Not Fade Away is an oasis of warmth. That doesn’t make it inherently better or even especially great, but it does make it an easier film to embrace, maybe even love. As much a historical and cultural epic as it is a personal one, this feature directorial debut by Sopranos scribe David Chase attempts to capture not only the excitement of young Americans getting caught up in the tempestuous flow of 1960s history (said flow including the popular embrace of rock music, the rise of political activism in the wake of the Vietnam War, and so on), but also the impending disillusionment as those young Americans grew up and went their separate ways. This isn’t exactly breathtakingly original material for a film, especially an American one—and in fact, this year’s New York Film Festival has two other main-slate titles, Olivier Assayas’s Something in the Air and Sally Potter’s Ginger & Rosa, that tackle similar thematic and emotional terrain. At its best, though, Not Fade Away is successful at evoking a palpable atmosphere of thrilling possibility among its characters, all trying not only to discover themselves, but also to find ways to negotiate practical realities while trying to make their voices heard in the world. Though he clearly empathizes with the young characters in his story, Chase isn’t sentimental about their hit-and-miss road to maturation, and he’s also bracingly clear-eyed about the generational gap dividing these youths and their parents (the latter group exemplified by the gruff patriarch played by James Gandolfini). If the characters and situations had been more distinctive and memorable, perhaps the film might have transcended its general feel of being a mere nostalgia-trip, greatest-hits checklist, complete with the expected wall-to-wall rock soundtrack featuring familiar hits (from the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks). There’s much to admire and enjoy here, and there’s no denying Chase’s passion, but there’s also little that feels especially fresh or revelatory.
The 50th New York Film festival runs from September 28 to October 14. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.