Sunday, February 24, 2013

Amour (2012)

WHO: Michael Haneke directed this.

WHAT: I know that earlier this week I said I don't do public Oscar predictions, but that wasn't meant to be a promise. I just can't resist going out on a limb with this one. Although Amour has been picking up prizes left and right starting with its Cannes debut and most recently at the Césars and the Independent Spirit Awards, is nominated in five Academy Award categories, and is widely expected to win in at least one of them today, Yet I predict the Amour team will go home empty-handed. If Amour does win an award. it won't be the one everyone thinks it will.

I'm not saying Amour doesn't deserve any Oscars. It's a very well-made film, and if I were an Academy voter myself I'd have strongly considered voting for it, at least in the only one of its five categories in which I've seen all of the nominees for: Best Director. But like most of Haneke's films its unblinking treatment of the illnesses of old age makes it an extraordinarily bleak viewing experience. To quote the tweet I typed after exiting the theatre, "You're riding a plane slowly crash-landing into Hell. With each cut the pilot makes you look out the window at the descent".

I would be thoroughly shocked if a film this harrowing is what a plurality of Oscar voters are going to want to present as the face of the film year by awarding it Oscars in top categories like Best Picture or Best Director. And although some believe there's a groundswell of support for the great Emmanuelle Riva to snatch the Best Actress in a Leading Role trophy, there's a lot of campaigning muscle being put behind other more bankable candidates, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who admires the performance of her (un-nominated) co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant more than hers. The Original Screenplay award is a tougher call; the Slant pundits make a good argument that this will break Amour's way in the absence of any other credibly viable candidates. Personally I'm rooting for Moonrise Kingdom here, but I wouldn't be so surprised to be wrong on this one. 

But I would be surprised, going completely against the tide, to see Amour take home the best Foreign Language Film Oscar. This bout of confidence will sound even more bizarre when I drop the other shoe: I haven't seen any of the other nominees in this category. I let A Royal Affair's theatrical run pass me by last year, and had to miss the Rafael's advance screenings of Kon-Tiki (which the Weinstein Company will release in April) and War Witch (which opens at the Roxie March 15th) and a press screening of No (which opens at the Embarcadero March 1st). So it's only a gut instinct that makes me feel that any of these other four films is more likely to win than the supposed frontrunner is. They all sound more up the Academy's alley than the film I watched last month.

Why would I know something all the pundits don't? I think some may be forgetting that a Haneke's last film the White Ribbon won quite a large number of so-called "precursor" awards on its way to Oscar night a few years back, and was widely predicted to win the award, but ultimately lost to the Argentine political thriller The Secret In Their Eyes. Some may remember that, but note that Amour has more evident support from the wider Academy, with its four nominations in other categories. But the same could be said about Pan's Labyrinth and Amelie, both of which also were multi-laureled frontrunners, but lost Oscars to The Lives of Others and No Man's Land, respectively. 

"Ah, but neither of those were also nominated for Best Picture," I hear some of you say. "Foreign Films nominated for Best Picture always win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar". What about Grand Illusion, The Emigrants, Cries and Whispers and Il Postino, then? "Well, none of those Best Picture nominees were actually nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the same time." Fair enough, I'll concede. But that leaves precisely three data points for this pattern you're trying to establish. Z in 1969, Life is Beautiful in 1998 and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000. It's just not enough of a trend for me to consider it significant, especially since these were all in the days of only five Best Picture nominees. I'm not so sure that Amour would have made the cut if there weren't nine slots in the top category this year.

Hype goes very far in awards season. But it can only go so far in the Foreign Language Film category, which is different from most Oscars in that, according to the rules, Academy members "can vote only after attesting they have seen all of the nominated films" in the category. Not only that, but historically, the films had to be seen at Academy-approved cinema screenings. I'm not certain if that's still the case, but the lack of most of the category's titles on lists of screeners received by Academy members makes me think it is. If the only Academy members voting in this category are the ones with the time and motivation to go to approved screenings, it's got to be a pretty small decision pool, and by the looks of recent lists of winners in this category, not one made up of fans of ice-cold clinical looks at the awfulness of the human condition. I think the collective consensus is much more likely to have picked a more inspirational or conventional movie, one they can take pride in 'discovering' for the rest of us to enjoy by anointing it with the priceless publicity of an Oscar.

WHERE/WHEN: Amour has multiple showtimes today through Thursday (and likely beyond) at the Clay, where it's been playing for many weeks (including when I saw it). Also playing at the Camera 3 in San Jose and other local venues.

WHY: If you don't care about Oscar season, I don't blame you. But if you haven't seen Amour yet you may want to do it soon, to get in the mood for the Pacific Film Archive's series devoted to actor Jean-Louis Trintignant that begins next Saturday. The aforementioned Z is one of the eleven films screening at the Berkeley venue.

HOW: Amour shows on 35mm at the Clay and the Camera 3, and (I believe) digitally elsewhere.

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