TIFF: Haneke Speaks Volumes, Polley’s Third is a Home Run

Michael Haneke puts his best foot forward with “Amour”

Toronto Film Festival: Something extraordinary happened while screening Amour, the new film from Michael Haneke, something that has never happened to me before in a theater. Partway through this deeply emotional film, by far the most gut wrenching of the directors career, I could my eyes filling with tears. Memory merged with the images I was seeing on the screen, and I stifled a sob, but the next one escaped me, and I found myself struggling not to weep openly. Gently, as though in a dream, I felt a hand on mine, and a gentle squeeze. The woman next to me, well into her seventies, leaned over and whispered to me in Danish, and continued to hold my hand until I composed myself. When the film ended I sat watching the credits, admittedly afraid to move, and she leaned over and asked, “you OK?” I smiled and thanked her. “You lose someone?” she asked me with gentle green eyes? “Yes”, I answered, and she replied without hesitation, without knowing who I had lost, “pain never goes away…life helps” and she turned and walked out of the theater. Obviously she has loss in her life, as we all do.    

Watching Amour, I found myself flashing back over the last year. The film had so many parallels to the life I have led this last twelve months, and I found it hit me very hard as films sometimes do. Last year I remember sitting in a screening weeping while George Clooney said goodbye to his dying wife in The Descendants (2011) wondering how long it would before I had to do the same. Here we are a year later, Sherri passed in April and I have seen a film that brought it all back to me with astounding force. You cannot easily get over a twenty-five year relationship that defined who you are. I adored her, and loved her deeply, and losing her has left a void in my life I am not sure will ever be filled. She was my reason for living, truly, and when she died a part of me, perhaps the best of me died along with her.

In Amour, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) suffers a stroke that leaves her physically and mentally crippled. It is left to Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to care for his elderly wife at a time when he too is likely too old to be doing such a thing. They are a close couple, the kind you see in malls holding hands despite their advancing years, and the kind that reaches over and gently wipes crumbs off the others face without thinking about it, they finish one anthers sentences. They are settled, happy in their routines, happy in their lives together. After the stroke Anne is partially paralyzed bringing new challenges to Georges each and every day, each one seemingly more difficult than the day previous. Not even their daughter, portrayed with gentle force by Isabelle Huppert can really make a difference to them, as they have backed themselves into a secure little world with the rests of the world shut out. Not on purpose, it just happens. Georges will feel the great pain of having to watch his beloved Anne slip away from him, as the impact of the stroke takes part of her each day, and he is left with the unbearable sense of helplessness that waits for all caregivers. We can see he does not mind, who does, but we can also feel the defeat he feels with each challenge that he cannot manage.

I cared for my wife for the last twelve months of her life, held her as she passed away, and it is something I will carry with me the rest of my days. Understand I do not feel sorry for myself, I just miss her like oxygen to the lungs, and feel terrible that she went the way she did, with part of her gone each day. Watching this vital, exciting, strong woman become bed ridden, lose her memory (though she always knew me) and her ability to walk and feed herself was terrible and seeing it happen to Anne brought it all crashing back with astonishing force. But the beauty of the film, and there is much beauty in it is the sheer devotion Georges has for his wife, and we know if it were the other way around, she would do the same for him. He understands what there is all going, as does she, but that does not make it any easier.

The performances of the two actors are remarkable; leaving no doubt why they are two of the greatest actors in French cinema, each will break your heart with the power of their work.

And Haneke, who has often been accused of being chilly and remote in his work, displays a humanity that is breathtaking to behold. With Amour, the emotions are raw and real, as strong a piece about love and devotion within a marriage as anything I have ever seen. Haneke could land a Best Director nomination for the film, and if the right push comes about both actors could be among the nominees for Best Actor and Best Actress. A nod for Best Foreign Language Film seems likely…hell assured.

STORIES WE TELL (****)…Sarah Polley is something of a national treasure up here because she is one, hugely gifted, and two we have watched her grow up. Her film Away from Her (2007) was a masterpiece though I struggled with her second Take This Waltz (2012). This new work, a documentary that is also part docu-drama is a work of staggering courage from one of the most talented directors working in this country. The film traces Sarah’s search for the truth about her biological father, something that has haunted her for years before the realization that indeed her father, Michael Polley was not really her true father. There had always been rumors circulating about just who Sarah’s dad was, as her mother Diane, had an affair while working in Montreal on a play. Initially, Sarah thought her father might be Canadian actor Geoffrey Bowes, but that proved to be not true. She continued her search and found that her father, biologically at least was a famous Montreal film producer, Harry, now an elderly man who quietly tells Sarah while meeting with her in Montreal that he is indeed her father.

The film paints a colorful portrait of Diane Polley, a fun-loving, exciting woman who struggled with her confidence. She needed to be loved, to be shown love and shown love constantly. She married for the second time for love, to Michael, but he was distant man and though he loved her he was not able to be all things she needed him to be. When she got the call to do a play in Montreal she took it, and had an affair with Harry. Returning from Montreal she discovered she was pregnant, and seriously considered having an abortion but backed out at the last moment. For much of her life her brothers and sister had teased Polley about not looking like anyone in the family, and after seeing the film, they were right. The resemblance to Harry and his daughter is striking.

Polley interviews each of her family members, and there is a great deal of emotion on display here but also frank and open discussion. One brother admits to having disappointment in his mother, that she did not display more responsibility in her affairs, practice better birth control. Sarah’s father looks at it like this, had the mother not had the affair with Harry, Sarah would not exist and she has been a joy in her life. He adores his daughter and rejoices that his wife found the sort of love she needed for a time. He feels for Harry that he lost the love of his life, that Diane returned home and Sarah grew up away with him. Somehow they have all come to terms with what happened, what would normally tear a family apart has actually brought this one closer.

Sarah Polley is a fiercely courageous filmmaker, a brilliant director, along with being a wise soul with great compassion and humanity. Imagine the decision to go forward on this project? Imagine airing what could be dirty laundry in public for the film world to see? If you think people have no interest, let me tell you the critics screening was packed, there were no seats. There is a great deal of drama in the film, but also much comedy, and that is her gift, that she is able to look at the situation with irony and a smile, and accept her place in the world.