The awards season peaks tomorrow with the opening, in New York and Los Angeles, of two assertively visceral and emotionally complex, yet essentially thoughtful, films by a pair of tough-minded directors. Neither movie is exactly suffused with what is considered the Christmas spirit, but both have been critically wreathed and decorated in advance of their release.
Kathryn Bigelow’s Death of Bin Laden epic “Zero Dark Thirty”, the beneficiary of weeks, if not months, of media controversy (also known as “publicity”), arrives as the New York Film Critic Circle’s best film of year. Michael Haneke’s Process of Dying drama “Amour” won the Palm d’Or last May in Cannes and was named the best film of the year by the Los Angeles Film Critics Associations—a rare honor for a foreign-language release.
Both “Amour” and “Zero Dark Thirty” make claims to realism. “Zero Dark Thirty” begins by announcing itself as “based on first-hand accounts of actual events” and then, with the screen still dark, plays the actual sounds of 9/11—real-life panic and death in the World Trade Center. “Amour”’s opening credits are ominously silent. Then, an apartment door crashes open to reveal a body lying in state. Although the endings of both movies are givens, each in its way is a procedural—which is to say, a heightened experience.
“Zero Dark Thirty” is already notorious of including scenes of graphic waterboarding and other forms of torture—designed to inspire audience complicity or disgust or some combination of the two. “Amour” begins with an image of death that serves to remind the viewer that not just the movie’s protagonists, a long-married couple played by octogenarian movie icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (who tied Jennifer Lawrence for best actress in the LA critics voting) are dying but, as we can’t avoid realizing given the long takes and objective framing, the stars too age and decline before our eyes. That, indeed, is the narrative, Riva’s character suffers a stroke, followed by the onset of dementia and spends the rest of the movie trying to hold onto her dignity as her mind dwindles and her personality disappears.
The Trintignant character’s devoted home care is truly heroic but “Zero Dark Thirty” delivers the kind of gritty protoganist we crave. The single-minded CIA operative played by Jessica Chastain is even more obsessed with death than “Amour”’s bereaved husband is with life. “I’m gonna smoke everybody involved in this op and then I’m gonna kill Bin Ladin,” she declares at one point after one agency scheme has gone disastrously awry. As with John Wayne in “The Searchers,” her mission is personal. “A lot of my friends have died trying to do this—I believe I was spared so I could finish the job.”
While “Zero Dark Thirty” runs over 2 ½ hours; “Amour” only feels like it does. That’s not a knock. “Amour” is, as I’ve written before, a particular sort of movie ordeal. (And that’s also not a knock.) Better, it’s a memento mori. There are very few films in which, with heightened awareness, you cling minute by minute to an inexorably dwindling life, even as you wait for the finality of its ending.
Images: Sony Classic Pictures, Sony