VIDEO ESSAY: Who Should Win the Oscar for Best Lead Actress

VIDEO ESSAY: Who Should Win the Oscar for Best Lead Actress

Part of "Who Should Win," a series of video essays co-presented by Indiewire Press Play and Fandor.

This year’s Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role will be the first for whoever wins it. Each nominee plays a character who faces extraordinary circumstances, and in some cases I wonder if it’s the role that people are praising more than the performance.

Naomi Watts is nominated as a tsunami victim in The Impossible, but basically all she does is look traumatized for the entirety of the film. Her face plastered with disaster movie make-up, Watts essentially gets credit for playing a victim, and we project pathos and profundity onto her wounded appearance.

There’s a similar issue with Emmanuelle Riva’s role as a dying woman in Amour. I  don’t understand why Riva has been getting most of the acclaim, when it’s her co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant who has the more difficult job as her husband, trying to make sense of her decline and manage their tragedy. Once again, the pathos of a character catches our attention more than the actual performance.

Compared to Watts and Riva, I actually prefer eight-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. As a young girl fending for herself amidst unspeakable poverty, she is a compelling presence. However, presence is not quite the same as performance. For the most part, Wallis’s standout work is made in the editing room, as short glimpses of her are interspersed among the film’s extravagant imagery. But there is one remarkable scene where her character has to stand up to her abusive, unpredictable father, and Wallis gives as good as she gets. Wallis is a diamond in the rough, and she has a ways to go to truly deserve an Oscar.

There might be some pathos to Jessica Chastain’s character, a female CIA agent caught in the dangerous world of Zero Dark Thirty. But Chastain doesn’t rely on our sympathy, and in fact she works against it when her character takes part in the movie’s notorious torture scenes. Chastain brings a no-nonsense professionalism to the role, and what’s really impressive about it is the force of her restraint. As she listens to interrogations and sifts through endless leads in her search for Osama bin Laden, you can see her mind processing all this information. And it’s that thoughtfulness that brings extra power to the moments when she does take bold action.

But ultimately it’s Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook who deserves to win, though part of it is due to the role, which is probably the most complex of the five roles to play. Tiffany is an emotionally disturbed widow fighting a sex addiction, looking to have a real relationship with a guy who has plenty of his own problems. That’s a lot of character issues for an actress to handle, but Lawrence grounds it all with an intelligence that’s disarmingly frank. In this early scene, she sets the terms. There’s so much hyper-awareness in her look and her voice, as if her character is too smart for her own wreck of a life. She thoroughly knows her problems but she doesn’t know what to do about them, and that makes her vulnerable.

But through all of Tiffany’s mood swings, Lawrence never plays them for pity. Even her destructive rages are informed by a piercing perceptiveness. And in this monologue which feels practically written to win an Oscar, Tiffany shares the tragedy of her husband’s death, but Lawrence doesn’t play up the melodrama. She simply treats it as a series of facts. All the emotion she needs to convey are in split-second blinks and eye twitches that betray her deadpan delivery.

Now that’s a pathos that doesn’t come easy, one that emerges through a performance that’s as smart as it is expressive, and is truly exceptional.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor’s Keyframe, and a contributor to Roger Follow him on Twitter.

CANNES 2012: Michael Haneke’s AMOUR (Glenn Heath Jr.’s Take)

CANNES 2012: Michael Haneke’s AMOUR (Glenn Heath Jr.’s Take)


Sometimes the aged body revolts, leaving a once vibrant human life facing the inevitably slow process of physical decay. Old age can become a metaphorical tomb, welded shut by fading memories and unspoken emotions, a place where the outside world fades from consciousness and leaves only the opportunity for personal reflection behind. One lingering question persists: can lasting devotion and intimate love exist within such a suffocating process? Michael Haneke’s Amour dares to answer yes, addressing the possibility that nightmares and hopeful dreams can co-exist in the same closed-off cinematic space. By encasing the viewer in the expansive apartment of an elderly couple experiencing the grim reality of impending death, Haneke examines a nearly impossible scenario with brilliant restraint and complexity.

The opening moments of Amour find Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) attending a piano concert held by one of Anne’s former students. In a great straight-on shot of the crowd that holds for over a minute, we can barely glimpse the elderly couple in the middle of the frame, staring at the stage, waiting calmly and quietly together for the music to start. They’ve probably attended hundreds of such events over the course of their relationship, but this will be their last. A few cuts later, the couple returns to their upper-class domicile, bantering about family matters over a quaint breakfast. When Anne suddenly stops speaking and looks stricken, failing to respond to one of Georges' questions, it’s clear some kind of terrible shift has occurred. Haneke spends the rest of the film documenting Anne’s brutally frank deterioration and Georges' fracturing mental state.

Despite the grave subject matter, Haneke avoids turning the couple’s suffering into a grotesque sideshow. We feel their pain in every striking composition, especially when Darius Khondji’s stunning medium shots hover above Anne lying in bed, her darkly tinted eyes in haunting contrast with her increasingly jaundiced skin. But the recurring presence of found memory provides a constant reminder that there’s still emotion to mine beneath this cold façade. When Georges loads Anne into her wheelchair, he tries to remember a story from his youth about a film-going experience that changed his life. He states, “I can’t remember the film’s title, but I remember the emotions.” In this instance and many more, we get the sense his sheer attempt at remembrance offers warm comfort despite the fact that he is mired in an ongoing personal hell.

Like most of Haneke’s oeuvre, Amour strips down set design and audio cues to suit the film's stark material. Darius Khondji’s precise camera is at its best when slowly moving through the apartment foyer, or momentarily out into the hallway for a brilliantly realized dream sequence involving wet feet and an errant hand. But Haneke only delves into the surreal a few times, instead letting the ambient noises of Anne’s cries echo like a requiem in the cramped space. In many ways, the sounds of Amour are most essential, markers of disappearing time and waves of emotion slowly fading to black.

Finally, Haneke’s layered mise-en-scene would be somewhat hollow without the two devastating performances at the film’s center.  Trintignant and Riva entrench themselves completely in the experience, their main form of communication often coming in the form of striking facial contortions and long distance eye contact. This instinctual sense of togetherness between two long-time companions gives Amour its heart and soul, permanently instilling in us the thought that love is never truly fulfilled until that final fade to black.

Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.

CANNES 2012: Michael Haneke’s AMOUR (Simon Abrams’ Take)

CANNES 2012: Michael Haneke’s AMOUR


Indifference kills quietly in Amour, the new psychodrama from Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon, Cache). In this devastating character study about the hell that is caring for an ailing loved one, writer and director Haneke explores grief as a slow, gnawing process. Coping with loss does not, however, begin with a catalyst as mundane as physical illness. Instead, it starts and ends with a debilitating kind of depression that’s facilitated by solitude. For Haneke, grief is just as frightening as death because it’s also a draining progression that we necessarily go through alone.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an elderly pensioner, cares for his dementia-afflicted wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) to the best of his abilities, but he is gradually consumed with depression, making the confines of his apartment eventually resemble a baroque prison to him. But Georges isn’t ostensibly alone. His daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) offers assistance, as do a couple of home healthcare aides. Still, Georges turns all of them away eventually, for unspecified reasons. Their concern, as Georges tells Eva at one point, is irrelevant, as it can only serve to separate him from his wife.

Georges' belief that Anne needs his care clouds his judgment. He feels that no one else can deal with this burden, as no one else sees her or can care for her in the same way. However, this is only partially true: something as simple as a touch on the hand is enough to quiet Anne down during some of her more hysterical moments, but only for a while. Haneke treats Anne's deterioration very matter-of-factly. Knowing that there is no hope for Anne's recovery, Georges' only recourse is to retreat further into his own tortured headspace and brood alone.

Amour is striking for its subdued and relatively un-provocative quality. Haneke has become known for poking a stick in viewers’ eyes and then asking them why they keep coming back for more. And yet Amour’s icy calm representation is of a piece with earlier films like The Seventh Continent and Lemmings, in that all three are characterized by existential despair. Nobody can intervene and save Georges from the nightmarish routine that Anne’s illness and his obsessive but un-sensationalized affection for her have forced upon him.

Moreover, Haneke even teasingly suggests that Anne’s illness is probably just an arbitrary event that pushed Georges over the edge. Georges has a nightmare about home invasion, but the concern about burglars is introduced early in the film, before he even knows Anne is sick. Anne’s illness only speeds up a process that began before Anne fell ill. Harrowing but also disturbing on a more subtle level, Amour addresses individual concerns even as it demonstrates Haneke’s cynical and highly seductive brand of agnosticism.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.