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Stanley Kauffmann on Films: Ages Apart

ADMIRERS OF THE Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke, of whom I hope there are many, may be surprised by his latest film. Such pictures as The Piano Teacher and Funny Games have not flinched from considerable violence when Haneke thought it was needed. His latest work is of different daring, though quite unafraid.

We see a theater auditorium from the stage. A woman’s voice asks the audience to turn off its cell phones. Then applause as people (whom we don’t see) come out on the stage, then the closing applause. Suddenly Paris firemen are breaking into an apartment, as though they thought it to be filled with gas. At last they find a dead woman lying on her bed. The film’s title splashes on the screen. Amour.

Sometime earlier that woman and her husband have come home. They are Anne and Georges Laurent, musicians in their eighties, and they glide into their large apartment comfortably, into their habitat. Next morning, when they are having breakfast, she suddenly stops, fixed, as if utterly paralyzed, and he runs to phone their doctor. When he gets back to the table, she is perfectly normal and is angry abouthis complaints about her attack. Still—some days later—she comes back in a wheelchair from a hospital where she has had a vascular operation. The doctors, we learn, are not satisfied with the results. Time must pass, and during that time, Georges must care for her.

This is the bulk of the picture, the drama—Georges’s response as Anne continues to decline and her response to their new condition. We also see other aspects of their lives. She talks with a visiting young pianist about Beethoven’s Bagatelles, and he plays her favorite for her. (Later we see Anne alone in her wheelchair, trying to move to the music.) And there is the family core, including visits from their married and troubled daughter. But the picture is about Georges and Anne and their new life.

Much of the time is spent as he goes about his nursing duties, as he prepares meals. I haven’t seen meals involving older people that affected me so keenly since Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Georges knows what she likes, and she knows that he knows, saying nothing about it. The meals are both memories and markers.

What they both know, what is being marked, is the filling of their home with inevitability. Without explicit comment they know the approach of her end, to be followed not long after by his, this double slipping away in the place where they lived so fully. She gets worse but refuses to go to a hospital again, and he understands. A surprising yet credible action intervenes.

The screenplay was shaped by a delicate master. Delicately, too, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, both beautifully aged, give performances that find the unspoken here, the counterpoints. This is realism that enlarges our conception of the term.

BARBARA is a rarity, a hybrid. Set in East Germany in the 1980s, it persuades us early on that its aura of political tension and suspicion, its taciturnity, its very strictness of silent observation as it begins, are fostering an intelligent thriller. But it is not long before we see that the political eeriness is fundamentally a cloak for a warm romantic story. Love in thrillers is not rare, but this balance is.

Directed by Christian Petzold, a German stalwart, with his favorite star, Nina Hoss, in the title role, it concentrates on a twentyish female doctor, Barbara Wolff, who at the start is moving from a large Berlin hospital to a small provincial one. She has been ordered to the smaller place as punishment for her application to leave East Germany. We watch her arrival in the new place from an office window along with the new place’s chief physician, André (thoughtful Ronald Zehrfeld), and colleagues. He does his best to welcome her, to see that she is well-settled and interestingly used. But he senses early on, though she is decent enough, that she is not to be embraced easily in any sense.

Two separate story strands quickly entwine. Barbara quickly becomes the idolized doctor of Stella, an escapee from a harsh work camp who is generally hysterical without her. And we see that Barbara is being watched by a secret agent whose car is outside her apartment constantly. To him she apparently is a suspect who may try to flee the country. To André she must be much the same, plus what he is discovering about her daily. We see her do suspicious things, like receive a wad of money and bury it secretly. Before long we learn that the money comes from her West German lover who visits her secretly—they are indeed in love—and with whom she plots escape. All this goes on while she is practicing fluently with André. Inevitably a crisis arises involving a choice between her practice—chiefly Stella—and her love.

To recount the plot is to dab it with a touch of mechanics. But both strands of Barbara’s life are so fully created that they are individually true and affect each other. Nina Hoss is an actress of greater depth than she reveals at first. Ronald Zehrfeld deepens, too, in his concern with her. Petzold treats the whole as if he recognized that two cinematic forms—Hitchcock and Cukor—are by now so well-established in our consciousness that their juncture is not only possible but somehow fit.

TITLES ARE PECULIAR much of the time, but not often do they lend purpose to a film. Such an oddity is Beasts of the Southern Wild. It took courage to use this misleading title, for it mocks a point of view that the director clearly despises. The subject is not some tropical mess but a place in Louisiana. It is deplorable but not a mess, and the film’s precise point is that these beleaguered people who live in it are not beasts.

Benh Zeitlin is a film-maker who moved south six years ago and was obviously astounded by the post-Katrina conditions he found in Louisiana. Together with the writer Lucy Alibar and the cinematographer Ben Richardson, he spent six years getting this unusual film made. They selected a place in Terrebonne Parish, called “the Bathtub” in the film, a bayou that is waterlogged much of the time and that is just on the other side of a levee around a city. Zeitlin determined not to make an appeal for help but an account of admiration—for the people living there. In fact in some ways they consider themselves luckier than those constrained by city life.

The film deals mostly with a six-year-old girl called Hushpuppy and her adored father, Daddy. Life, as she frequently splashes along, seems fascinating. His actions to protect their shabby home from a sudden flood seem heroic to her. More of their daily struggles occupy their time—his barehanded catching of a fish is a highlight—and never is there an appeal for outside help. Zeitlin’s point is not to beg, but almost to boast. These neglected people are nevertheless carrying on their lives.

What is also extraordinary is that almost all the people we see are actors. So this is not a documentary but a moving enactment by people who are themselves moved. The most affecting of the lot is Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, one more astonishingly gifted child. She confirms the truth that all of these people are striving to convey.

Stanley Kauffman is the film critic at The New Republic. This article appeared in the December 31, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Ages Apart."