CANNES 2012: Hong Sang-soo’s IN ANOTHER COUNTRY

CANNES 2012: Hong Sangsoo’s IN ANOTHER COUNTRY

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The screenwriting process produces a kind of sandbox cinema in Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country, the Korean director’s latest jazz riff on human interconnection. The film’s beach side location may be consistent with earlier films, but its unique characterizations traverse freely outside the logic of conventional storytelling. Made up of three separate pieces, each revolving around a different character played by French actress Isabelle Huppert, the film addresses the overlapping ripple effect of miscommunication, and how a world can be expanded or quantified by simply noticing (or remembering) the details of your surroundings.  

From its beginning, In Another Country somersaults forward, spinning and turning on a dime whenever it pleases. The opening scene finds a woman writing a script in her beachside villa, passing the time by flexing her creative muscles, to avoid dealing with the uncertainties of life. Hong then dives inside her imagination, showing us the film's succeeding stories in chronological order and connecting each divergent thread through recurring dialogue and characters. A product of the hazy desire to experiment with time and space, much of In Another Country feels lovingly improvised, light as the persistent whisper of raindrops in its background. There’s very little rush to the character’s actions, in keeping with the island feel of the mainland coastal setting.

Hong is fascinated with the way people interact during awkward situations, focusing organically on the random channels of human movement and speech in times of momentary duress. The first section of In Another Country, in which Huppert’s famous actress visits a Korean director at his vacation home by the sea, is hilarious because it frames controlled confusion in a loving manner. The climax of Huppert’s indoctrination into the natural rhythm of this particular Korean community occurs when she interacts with a local lifeguard (Yu Junsang) who seems hell bent on pleasing her, no matter the cost. Their respectful banter is something special, in which two people cross paths and can’t quite figure out how to connect.

Like virtually all of Hong’s films, In Another Country is made up of diverging narrative tracks unfolding inside the same universe. Props, lines of dialogue, and character expressions all show up multiple times, but always within a different context. As a result, similar situations and motivations that repeat under similar circumstances are given unique qualities specific to the moment they occur. Hong has played with temporal bridging so many times, most wonderfully in last year’s Un Certain Regard entry The Day He Arrives. But In Another Country feels wonderfully lost at times, almost lovingly so, as if to evade anyone attempting to put a label on its freeform verses. Time really doesn’t matter here.

By the end of In Another Country, Huppert’s performing triptych reveals a surprising balance of tones, whisking comedy and tragedy together to establish a level of nuance that connects the three women as unknown kindred spirits. Taken in context, this is exactly what makes Hong’s films so indelible: the spacious and formative revelations people experience during everyday conversations that sneak up suddenly, and then quietly change your life.

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 (Glenn Heath Jr.’s Take)

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

"Amour"

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

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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.