Psycho

Fearflix 26

AMOUR

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The clue is in the pigeon except that the pigeon is not a clue. Michael Haneke, the writer and director of the film Amour refuses to explain what the double appearance of the pigeon means.

 

‘If when I’m asked how the pigeon ended up in my film, I say that it flew in through the window and it flew out through the window.’   He likes his films to be ambiguous. ‘Everybody is right.’ he claims. ‘It’s their own interpretation. I try to construct all my films in such a way that each viewer constructs his or her own film.’

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All human beings feel obliged to respond to mysteries with solutions. Death ranks with the best of the mysteries. The carnage that God or nature inflicts on the human race ensures that none of us, to paraphrase Orson Welles, will have happy endings. Haneke describes the ideal death as the example experienced by the grandmother of his wife. ‘She was 95. She was sitting at a table, surrounded by twenty friends. At one point she said, ‘I feel tired,’ laid her head on the table and died.’ We understand what he means.   Death is easier in company, when it is not too early or too late and when there is no time for pain and fear. Never modest about finding solutions to mysteries, the human race has provided two for death. These are glorious battle and love. Glorious battle offers sacrifice and consequence. Love persuades us that our lives may continue in others and that they, on our behalf, will defy the destruction inflicted by time and death. In the Sam Peckinpah Western masterpiece The Wild Bunch glorious death in battle is the response to existential despair. Love stories are older than Westerns. Sometimes they have offered consolation against thoughts of death and sometimes not.

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Amour is not a Western and neither should we conclude that it is the love story that critics in the UK were determined to welcome. British critics assumed that Haneke used his film to remind us about the horrors of death and ageing but also to inspire his audience with the uplifting message that love is ultimately transcendent.   The film critic of Time Out magazine stated that the film is about loyalty.   Phillip French in The Observer was less inhibited than others and actually reiterated the view that all we have to help us endure beyond our death is the love of others.   The film has been described as heartfelt and humane. If they observe horror in the film, it is reduced to commenting on the affects of ageing, how it reduces comfort and significance or consequence.

Nobody can deny those interpretations. Many will find the film difficult to experience but inspiring. Viewers will respond to how a charming and successful couple with refined tastes and manners has been reduced by age and circumstance.   They will think of the title and believe it reaffirms the redemptive powers of love. Haneke is right about ambiguity. If that is their interpretation then fine.   Despite the fine thoughts of some, love may be no more than a crutch for the dying, something to lean on after defeat. Nevertheless the notion that only love can transcend death is assumed to be an eternal truth.

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Haneke is an original. He enjoys being different, and it appears strange that he would settle for repeating a theme that others believe profound and essential but that may be misguided.   We know that Haneke has an opinion of bourgeois self-delusion and hypocrisy that is scathing.   He will also tease the audience by having glamorous actors play people who are stylish and clever but self-serving and flawed. This was achieved in his thriller Hidden. It takes a while for the audience to realise that the charming man and wife in the film are actually the villains. There is, though, no reason why a talented filmmaker cannot change his sensibilities and produce a movie that is sympathetic to a refined middle class couple. But Amour has too many inconsistencies if it is merely understood as the final exchanges in a love story between two endearingly worthwhile people. In the film, love does not conquer decline and death.   The intervention by Trintignant the husband is a desperate act. When Terence Davies re-made the Terence Rattigan play The Deep Blue Sea he added an anachronistic line about love being a willingness to clean the backside of a debilitated spouse.  This is not true. Some people can handle that level of intimacy and some cannot but to assume that the difference between these people is the existence of love in a relationship is an error. A person may be passionate about their spouse but still lack compassion or the necessary sensibility. Some people are able to become intimate with strangers; either as prostitutes or in care homes working with the elderly. Many of us are horrified by both professions, neither of which offers career prospects. Davies is a filmmaker who is driven by his emotions. Haneke is much more intellectual.

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Love is not inevitably redemptive or virtuous.   Norman Bates in Psycho loved his mother, and anybody who can carry a skeleton down to the cellar every time the doorbell rings would have been more than capable of attending to the ablutions the rest of us would rather avoid. Norman intrudes here because Amour resembles the great Hitchcock classic Psycho. It may even be a remake, and the pigeon included as homage to the master of suspense. Amour has all the ingredients. Bates this time is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant.   Presumably because he has bunions he wears trainers instead of slippers as he shuffles awkwardly around the flat. This makes him sinister rather than endearing.   The Janet Leigh character reappears as the cleaner that Trintignant dismisses abruptly in a scene that is much more ambiguous and sinister than the critics have acknowledged. And the detective becomes the daughter who is prevented from seeing her mother by the father.   As in Psycho the intruders believe that they will only know the truth when they see the mother.   Most important of all we have the elegant Parisian flat, where rooms lead into one another, posing as the old house. In the film, shots of the flat are extended and, as in Psycho, the home exists as a character. The final image in the film is the daughter, Isabelle Huppert, alone in the empty flat. She is looking for memories and she may even be pondering what death means for the lives lived and why we leave as pre-prepared corpses. The daughter may, though, simply be wondering about why the behaviour of her father became strange and why he did what he did. The critics may have missed it but horror occurred in the elegant Parisian flat. The man and woman may have been cultured but they were also strange.

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Those who see the couple as ideal should remember the opening scene and the two old people on the bus who do not speak to each other.   Because of time and familiarity, words like their love have expired. The tragedy for the hero in the film is that the wife, who is shrunken by her two strokes, impedes on the memories that fulfilled his love. He has a solution but it is unpredictable and dramatic.   He only discovers it when the pigeon arrives. Not the first time but the second when he catches the pigeon by smothering it in a blanket. We also have the small matter of the brown tape that is used to seal the doors. Like Norman Bates, the hero in Amour does everything that he can to keep his woman in her place so his own love, which is no more than a memory, can prevail.

Haneke is not the first director to be unconcerned about an audience misunderstanding his film. Amour lets an audience mislead itself. It is more than ambiguous.   It is two films in one, and either can be enjoyed. Alfred Hitchcock had the same ambition with Psycho. Nothing appealed to him more than terrifying an audience with a film that he found amusing. The two elderly people in Amour are far more sophisticated than Norman Bates, and some find the impact of death more upsetting when it applies to the gifted and blessed. Haneke understands middle class tragedy as well as anyone. He has not shown much sympathy before and he is nothing if not consistent. Romance and self-pity are not in his nature. Amour and Haneke is too sly and dark for that.

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Note – this is an edited version of the review that appeared when Amour was released in the UK. It is included here because it fits the Fearflix collection.

 

Howard Jackson has had five books published by Red Rattle Books. His latest book Choke Bay is now available here. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the other books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fearflix 19

Cronus

Mexico

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Human beings did not need to know about vampires to realise that immortality might be a bad idea. Even when life was short and brutish, death was preferred to never ending existence. As the ending of Cronus makes clear, we need to die so that others can live, have space and achieve independent identity. Despite the faults of human beings, and there are many, we have understood this for some time. Henry James described death as something that made heroes of us all. James or perhaps someone else said it was the wonderful thing that we all do. The ending of Cronus states familiar philosophy, that the light of death will only be achieved through a willing acceptance of sacrifice and the love of and for others. The unoriginal ending, though, is handled with subtlety and sensitivity. The ending of Cronus confirms both the poetic ambition of the film and the talent of its makers.

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Cronus was the first feature film to feature gifted Mexican director Guillermo del Toro. Since then he has mixed poetical horror like Pan’s Labyrinth and well made but uninspired Hollywood blockbusters like Hellboy and Blade. Cronus is a vampire movie but del Toro is not concerned with the vampire as an icon.  Mexico may have social and economic problems but the dentistry appears to be traditional and adequate. Everyone has normal teeth. The movie references in Cronus echo Hitchcock rather than Hammer horror. As in Psycho, there are bathroom scenes and a car that disappears reluctantly. Guillermo del Toro concentrates on the themes that have ensured the vampire myth endures. These are immortality, ageing, decay, boredom, addiction, fetishism, loss and narcissism.

If immortality is achieved, ageing will be conquered but it will mean lives negated by boredom and spiritual decay. Boredom can be defied and challenged by ecstasy but this is always short lived and addictive. The dependency soon becomes self-harming. The weak willed when tempted by ecstasy can self-destruct but most of us seek routine activity and settle for subsequent loss and regret. An interest in objects is a diversion that gives us purpose but it is our vanity that allows us to confuse the appeal of objects with the power of life. We even think of ourselves as objects that have to be preserved, just like the items that we collect.  Making ourselves into objects, the ultimate collectors item, allows us to feed our narcissism. All these ideas are in Cronus but they are hinted at rather than discussed. This is not a badly written episode of True Detective. There is no verbose detective who sits on a bench and stares at the sky before explaining what he studied in his first year at University.

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The Cronus in the film is a timepiece that contains an insect whose appetite for blood extends life. The timepiece is an object and it arrives at the antique shop of owner Jesus Gris where it joins his other objects. In Spanish the word ‘gris’ means grey. The shop owner may be dull but his Christian name is Jesus. He will be tempted by resurrection. The rich businessman who also desires the timepiece is called Guardia. He wants to preserve, to keep both the timepiece and himself for eternity. The shop owner spends his life handling objects. When he sells an object, it takes him time to wrap what he sells, and the audience becomes aware of how the process of wrapping gifts resembles our own need to wear clothes. We dress objects as we dress ourselves. Humans are compelled to bestow glory on creatures and things.

The relationship of the shop owner to his granddaughter is important to the film. After Jesus Gris returns from dying he sheds skin. The granddaughter accepts him and does not feel disgust. Both del Toro and Steven Spielberg like to use children in their movies. Spielberg approves of their innocence and insists that because children are free of prejudice they will welcome his Disneyland version of liberalism. Del Toro is tougher. His children reject contrived adult reality. His children are aware of nightmare and horror and should not be ignored.

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At the beginning of the film the grandfather and his granddaughter share a simple jigsaw puzzle. Objects link the generations but their meaning changes over time. Objects that became dull to adults are rediscovered and become interesting to children. The statue that houses the timepiece in the gothic pre-credit sequence is not quite the same as the statue that appears in the shop. The timepiece in the statue is called Cronus. It has metal claws that draw blood. This produces ecstasy for the shop owner and reinvigorates his health, appearance and sex drive. It also compels him to drink blood.   The reaction of the granddaughter to the addiction of the grandfather is the same as that of her own dead father when he discovered that the shop owner used nicotine. Addictions not only redefine the users, they change others.   In Dracula movies there are people who witness their relatives and friends become vampires. The relatives suffer torture and anguish. Narcissism may confuse us into thinking we are unique and have an exclusive entitlement to have all our appetites satisfied but, as Lucy Westenra discovered in Dracula, nobody makes decisions about ecstasy and routine in isolation.

In Cronus the cruel and decaying businessman who wants the timepiece to give him added life has a nephew. The younger man wants to inherit his money, and the businessman uses him to search for the unique timepiece.   The younger man is played by Ron Perlman. Somebody must love him but Perlman is not a handsome man. He played the Beast in the American television series Beauty And The Beast. The nephew is obliged to be ugly but his human narcissism is evident. He wants plastic surgery for his nose. Multilingualism is a virtuous asset that aids communication between races and it even keeps dementia at bay. But second languages can mess up both scriptwriters and actors. The scenes between the grasping nephew and the self-obsessed uncle are in English and are the weakest in the film. Better are the scenes that feature the mortician. Coarsened by his job the Mexican mortician imagines nothing but surviving in a grim world that affords him no status. His reference to the after life is cynical but wary. The narcissism of the mortician is limited to excessive sideburns. Insensitive to the living, the dead and even himself he is not delicate. He stores used chewing gum on his braces. The mortician may be aware of heaven and hell but the bodies he prepares are nothing to him but spent meat.

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Time is referred to often in the film. The party in the middle of the film takes place on New Year’s Eve. It may not have occurred to Jools Holland and his BBC producers yet but these celebrations are the most ironical and self-defeating in the calendar. Somehow the fatal mixture of alcohol and idiocy permits revellers to think that time is an asset and a blessing. Del Toro is more realistic. It is in a bathroom at the New Year’s Eve party that the shop owner has to acknowledge the price of his narcissism and his desire for youth. Glutinous for blood the shop owner ignores the bathroom mirrors and his degradation. Previously it was a mirror that promised him new delight and potential. In the party a performer walks around the party dressed as a giant clock. The wife of the shop owner earns money by teaching the tango to aspiring dancers. The tango is considered to be unique by aficionados. Many believe its measured rhythm is not designed to induce ecstasy but to merge pleasure with the patient acceptance of fate. Like everyone else in the film the wife of the shop owner has narcissistic insecurity. She worries about the extra weight, which is a consequence of time. The tango is part of her routine but it has limited powers.

The inability of the granddaughter to understand either death or its prospect enables her to support and assist her grandfather after he returns from dying. Only after death does the shop owner acquire the strength to resist the temptation of the timepiece. In one simple look he understands the future entitlement of the young and what it means for the old. Whether it is the memory of death that gives him strength to resist his narcissism and value the love of his granddaughter is for the audience to decide. It is the granddaughter that defeats the rich businessman. The granddaughter may be small and fragile but she has time and destiny on her side. And, like most children, she is also sneaky. Adults can only be guardians for so much and for so long. Without the sly knowing of children who need to insist that the future belongs to them the world could tilt in a way that would wreck us all.

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Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His next book Choke Bay will be available this summer. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and other great titles, click here.