Ah, that’s better. I’ve finally seen the two key films I needed to see before the end of 2012. They are Michael Haneke’s Amour, and Ben Wheatley’s Sightseers, and both predictably crash into my Top 10 films of the year, which I will publish next week. In the meantime, might I suggest some similarities between what are two alarmingly different films? I love it when circumstance and the vagaries of the release schedules do this, and wish I had the time to do this in more detail. First, the differences:
Amour is an Austrian/French/German co-production, in French, set in France, and written and directed by Haneke. The fictional story of an elderly couple coping with the physical deterioration of one of them, it is apparently based upon a number of Haneke’s own experiences, and stars two veterans of French cinema, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. It is an austere chamber piece, shot largely in a Parisian apartment, which was built on a set.
Sightseers is a British production, in English, set in England, and co-written by its two stars, comedians Steve Oram and Alice Lowe, with Amy Jump (who also co-wrote Wheatley’s previous film, Kill List). The fictional story of a young couple exploring what is a relatively new relationship while caravanning across England, the characters were created and developed by Oram and Lowe in a stand-up act. It is a bleak comedy, shot on location.
What these two disparate films have obviously in common is that neither is comfortable viewing. Amour is slow, precise, claustrophobic and on the surface, tragic, as Riva’s character, a piano teacher, is reduced to a shell by a series of strokes. Her decline is difficult to watch at close quarters. Sightseers has a comedic, self-deprecating tone, and sometimes strays into farce, but it’s driven by a string of murders committed by the couple that take it into much darker waters. Nobody in the admittedly half-empty cinema I saw it in laughed once. Although perhaps they were smiling, as I was.
What they have in common, aside from the fact that I loved them both, is that they are about love, and the things love will make us do. In the case of Georges and Anne in Amour, who have been together for decades, their love forces them to face death, and to ask how far one would go for the other if the other was in a reduced state. Although the situation is sad, and depressing, the impact it has upon the couple’s devoted love is uplifting and, oddly, heartwarming. In both films, we hear an elderly woman moaning in pain. It opens Sightseers: it’s the infirm mother of Tina (Lowe), who is wailing in mourning of her dog, which was killed in an accident. Her pain is emotional. In Amour, we hear Anne moaning; the effect is just as unsettling and hypnotic. But her pain is physical and emotional. Tina and Chris (Oram) have only been “going out” for three months. Their love is new, and fresh, and thrilling. But it, too, is tested by how far one is prepared to go for the other.
I won’t go into plot details, obviously, but Sightseers builds through a series of grisly events to a point where Tina and Chris’s love has been strengthened, or so it appears. Amour begins with the ending and works in flashback, so we know the outcome of Georges and Anne’s ordeal, but it still shocks when it happens. You come out of both films with your faith in the power of love confirmed. (Sightseers actually goes literal and uses Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s The Power Of Love on its soundtrack, one of a number of pop tunes that either underlines or ironically undermines the action. Amour has no score, but classical music is key to the couple’s bond, just as, we might assume, 80s hits might be to the couple in Sightseers – Oram and Lowe were both teenagers in that decade.)
It goes without saying that Oram and Lowe, who conceived the project and their characters, bring a full-blooded sense of reality to two protagonists who might, in other circumstances, feel like Tarantino cartoons. No matter that Tina, for instance, has knitted herself some sexy underwear for the trip – including crotchless knickers – and Steve demands, “Mint me”, with his mouth agape when he requires an extra-strong mint of Tina; these comic creations live and breathe. Equally, although Trintignant and Riva are playing protagonists written from scratch by Haneke, their octogenarian skill and experience create an utterly believable autumn-years chemistry.
Although the apartment in Amour has been artificially created on a soundstage, it was modelled on an existing one, and it has been dressed impeccably, such that you could imagine Georges having sat in that same armchair for years and years. (The film actually opens in a theatre, where he and Anne enjoy what will turn out to be their last ever piano recital together, thereafter prisoners in their own home.) Sightseers makes a virtue of its locations, following Chris’s carefully-planned route from Redditch to Yorkshire, via such well-worn “quirky visitor attractions” as the Keswick Pencil Museum (it’s been used as a gag by many an observer of English life, but now, we actually see it!). It is as much an awestruck monument to England’s dark and mysterious past as The Wicker Man is of Celtic paganism. (Kill List, if you’ve seen it, draws more explicitly on pagan worship – as did Hot Fuzz, whose writer/director Edgar Wright is one of the key producers on Sightseers; both are made by Big Talk films.)
Terminal illness is not a new subject for drama. But Amour takes it to a new level, through the attitude of Georges, who rejects the hand-wringing of their mostly absent daughter (Isabelle Huppert), and refuses pity or sympathy, accepting the round-the-clock care his beloved wife needs with stoic patience. Seeing him sing to Anne, as part of her therapy, while she struggles to use her half-frozen mouth to join in, is one of the most moving things I’ve seen at the cinema this year. Sightseers doesn’t quite hit this pitch at any point, but Tina’s loyalty to Chris is no less touching. It may be played for laughs, but there’s a scene involving someone else’s digital camera that’s almost heartbreaking, thanks to Lowe’s brilliant reaction.
I’ve become a devoted admirer of Haneke’s work – Code Unknown, The Piano Teacher, Funny Games, Caché, The White Ribbon – but suspect that Amour might be his finest hour. I’m also a massive fan of Ben Wheatley’s films so far – Down Terrace, Kill List – and, even though he didn’t write this one, which skews the auteurist pitch a bit, it’s an incredible directorial achievement. The landscapes, in particular, seem to seethe with rage at certain points, while at others, they provide the primal peace and tranquility that Chris cannot get in the town. Down Terrace, made for almost no money, was physically closer to Amour, in that it was confined to rooms. Sightseers takes Wheatley out of himself, and offers a glimpse of a wider world. Meanwhile, Haneke has retreated indoors, back, perhaps, to the confinement of Funny Games. But that film’s trickiness has gone.
So, anyway, two amazing films. Go and see them both. If you’re lucky, four loud women won’t walk in during the final seconds of Sightseers, as they did last night. They thought they were walking in to see Great Expectations and – I heard them say – they assumed what we were watching was an advert.
Perhaps they were: an advert for love.