At Cannes, Love Beset by Age and by Faith
‘Amour’ and ‘Beyond the Hills’ at Cannes Film Festival
By MANOHLA DARGIS
Published: May 20, 2012
CANNES, France — By Sunday morning the 65th Cannes Film Festival had its first masterwork and an overwhelming critical favorite in Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” A tender, wrenching, impeccably directed story of love and death, the French-language film stars Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant as a Parisian couple in their 80s — named Georges and Anne, as are most of Mr. Haneke’s middle-class couples — struggling with an increasingly debilitating illness and the specter of what comes next. One day over breakfast she suffers a frightening episode that leaves her briefly locked in a mute, seemingly unaware blankness. She’s there, but not, and then just as suddenly she returns.
Features and interviews with filmmakers at the 65th Cannes Film Festival.
A hospital stay follows along with an operation, a grim prognosis, a slide into helplessness, the expected accumulation of humiliations, natural and not, and swells of emotion. Half-frozen by a stroke, Anne’s body has begun to betray her, but Georges holds her so very close: he brushes her hair, bathes and dresses her. Somewhat stooped, with a shaky, hitchy walk, he trembles when he lifts her from the bed or a chair, but he keeps holding on. The first time he has to help her move from her wheelchair, she tells him how to grasp her properly, as if in a hug, a gesture that’s poignant in its literalness — they press into each other — and reverberant of an erotic life shared and still remembered.
Mr. Haneke has often turned his cool gaze toward power and violence, and in some respects he has done so again in “Amour,” one difference being that he’s also made room here for tenderness. Part of the film’s emotional force is due to the actors, both superb, and to the poignancy of watching these two familiar, now frail bodies of cinema, as it were, performing in a pantomime of sickness and death. This very real fragility makes a sharp contrast with the bodies cinema immortalizes — eternally young — and it seems telling that Mr. Haneke, who likes to pick at screen illusion, cast actors who starred in two of the most famous French films of all time: Mr. Trintignant was the titular man from “A Man and a Woman” and Ms. Riva played the nameless woman in “Hiroshima Mon Amour.”
“Amour” sent a charge through the packed, rapt 2,300-seat theater, and immediately suggested that there was more to the official lineup than the first few days had suggested. The competition had gotten off to a terrific start with Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” even if not everyone was equally convinced. A similar critical ambivalence greeted another strong competition entry, “Beyond the Hills,” from the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, who won the Palme in 2007 for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” His new film centers on two young women who, after a reunion, are slowly and forcibly separated by different faiths: Alina (Cristina Flutur) believes in their friendship while Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) has turned to God and become a nun in a tiny Christian Orthodox sect.
Set largely in Voichita’s monastery, a windswept outcropping of buildings in the deep countryside, the story unfolds in atmospheric bits and narrative pieces. Alina and Voichita are lifelong friends, having grown up in the same orphanage. Alina, the stronger, more stubbornly independent of the two, has returned home after a stint working in Germany and thinking that she and Voichita will go off together. Mr. Mungiu, who prefers that viewers come to their own conclusions, never makes it clear if the women are lovers — “You will think whatever you will think,” he said during the party for his film Saturday — though a scene in which Voichita massages Alina’s back, then looks away when Alina turns over, baring her breasts, suggests private worlds of complication.
Shot on film and running two-and-a-half engrossing hours, “Beyond the Hills” explores the push and pull between the collective and the individual, between faith and free will. Voichita insists that she wants to stay at the monastery, where she and some dozen other nuns — along with chickens, boxes of bees and a kind of Greek chorus of incessantly barking dogs — live without electricity under the strict religious supervision of a priest. With mounting desperation and increasingly violent outbursts, Alina tries to change Voichita’s mind. Believing in a world of absolute good and evil, and confused by Alina’s passion, the nuns and priest respond by trying to ritualistically drive out the Devil, an ordeal that effectively pits one woman against a millennium of religious orthodoxy.
At his party, a typical Cannes beach affair with pounding beats and revelers swarming the open bar, Mr. Mungiu talked about his film, the difficulties of shooting in winter and working with a young, untested cast. He based the screenplay (originally 245 pages!) on a pair of fact-based books by Tatiana Niculescu Bran about a real nun who died after being gagged and tied to a cross for days in a Romanian monastery during an exorcism. (Ms. Bran turned her first book into a play, “Deadly Confession,” which was staged at La MaMa in 2008.) It’s a shocker of a story, yet while Mr. Mungiu’s sympathies are transparently with Alina he neither sentimentalizes her — he keeps her at both an emotional and visual distance — nor does he demonize the priest or, especially, the nuns.
“The film should be watched and judged from each character’s perspective,” he explained, giving the larger, suggestively political view. “This is how you will discover that it is difficult to say who is guilty, because the people who are really guilty are not in the film. They are the people who created this kind of society, the people who created education that completely lacks the very important moral values that people should have.”