“Every step of the way we walk the line.
Your days are numbered.
So are mine.” – Bob Dylan
Four of the best performances this year come from two films about love and marriage in the twilight years. What’s interesting about both is that they come at a time when the majority of films star and favor youthful stories. It is as though we’re caught in an endless loop of denial. We’re young for such a short amount of time. The rest of our lives are lived (if we’re lucky) as older people. You really can’t know this until you’re well out of your 20s. The entertainment spenders are mostly young people and if they aren’t young people, they’re old people obsessing on youth, beauty and all of the stuff that can’t last. In other words, we mostly torture ourselves.
Michael Haneke and David Frankel. Two brave storytellers, with the courage to really dive into that which we can’t discuss — the whole lives of senior citizens. Even that term — senior citizen — is a way of boxing it up and putting it up on the top shelf where we can’t see it and don’t have to deal with it. That isn’t us. We won’t be the slow driver who cautiously enters the intersection or lingers a little too long at the electronic check-out at the supermarket, or blinks in confusion when someone mentions Facebook or wi-fi. Old people aren’t people, but seemingly disconnected creatures who don’t know anything about the modern world. As you get older you learn the dirty little secret that wisdom translates to a distillation of life’s primary colors.
Michael Haneke’s Amour and David Frankel’s Hope Springs are films that explore the good, the bad and the ugly of life, long term commitment, aging and ultimately, dying. This is the opposite end of the love at first sight, happily ever paradigm as love is so often presented. The main difference between the two couples is that in Amour you know these two people love each other so desperately that there is never a question of keeping their marriage alive; it IS alive. They wake up to talk to each other. They go to sleep in each other’s arms. They respect and adore one another. So that when one has to die, it becomes the most unbearable tragedy of their lives. Is it happily ever after? It was for a time. Until it wasn’t. This is the harsh reality of our lives. We’re all heading towards the end in one way or another. Therefore, the only thing that matters is the time you have left.
In Hope Springs, Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep are at a crossroads. They aren’t a couple who hangs on each other’s every word. They don’t really know who they are. They sleep in separate rooms and can’t bear to touch each other. He falls asleep every night in front of the TV, she curls up alone, more lonely that she’d be if she lived alone. She makes the decision to change things. Either they fix it or they end it.
What is remarkable about Hope Springs and Amour is that the writers do not flinch when it comes to telling the truth. Of all of the violent films we’ve seen this year, nothing could be more uncomfortable than watching Meryl Streep have to talk about her sexual fantasies, orgasms, oral sex. It isn’t that Streep herself couldn’t go there — hell, she can go anywhere. It’s that the marvelous character she manifests can’t. It is sex that’s wrong, but it is also emotional intimacy – and what could be more awkward than that?
There is nothing romantic about physically caring for your lover as she withers in your arms. This is bedpans, bed sores, wetting the bed, eating baby food, the loss of speech — it is the part of life most of us fear yet here is Michael Haneke diving right into the deep end. By the end of it you can be sure that you finally and completely understand what is meant by the word love. This is love in every definition of the word. It is as powerful and life altering as you allow it to be.
The performances are probably going to ride circles around the rest of the performances given this year. But because Streep won last year (in a far lesser performance) and because they are “old” people, there is nothing sexy about them. Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant are not well-known enough outside Europe and art-house Americans to garner Oscar attention. Most Oscar watchers will shake their head no, never giving Oscar voters, SAG voters or Globe voters the benefit of the doubt — that they can recognize a great performance even when the actors aren’t speaking in the English language.
Streep has tapped into something real here — with no wig, makeup and accent to hide behind, she is at her most vulnerable. There is a tiny bit of a voice, and a manner to depict a woman who is cut off from her own body but who clearly needs more from life. Probably there isn’t anything Streep can’t do, but this kind of work is more emotionally difficult for her than the toss off role she phoned in from last year. Jones doesn’t get to wisecrack and smirk through this part. Maybe we’ve never really known what a versatile actor he really is — because who knew he could do this, to be this bare. He plays a man frightened by his own emotions because he too has cut them off after being married to an emotionally and sexually stunted woman for 30 years. They find their way out of quiet desperation. They are the stop before Amour. What’s coming next for them is what Amour is about.
Riva must play a vivacious woman who descends towards death. She must go from being able to speak, to not being able to speak and then finally, to tolerating her husband’s inability to let her go — the rage and humiliation that comes with dying. Trintigant plays the caregiver who is madly in love with his wife and unable to face that they won’t be spending forever doing what they’ve always done – waking up, going to the theater, taking walks, enjoying every minute of time together.
Where Amour is more assuredly a masterpiece, Hope Springs is more problematic as great cinema. For one thing, Frankel relies too much on music cues to fill in subtext we really don’t need; the actors are so thorough here, anyone with half a brain will not leave wanting more — they turn themselves inside out. Some of the comic bits don’t match the seriousness the actors bring to the material. Maybe if the performers were less willing to go so deep it would work as a quirky comedy about bringing a marriage together. Because the actors are so raw and exposed the comic bits feel out of place. In fact, as a play with just Jones and Streep? There is your masterpiece.
Haneke, though, walked away with the Cannes Film Fest with Amour. It is the kind of film that shuts up even the most braindead and apathetic bloggers who attend the fest looking for something that will shake them to their core. That’s because of all of the frightening things we’ve seen in film, there is nothing quite as terrifying as the moment we must confront death. It s a beautiful truth. It is an ugly one.
Will Oscar voters pay attention to them? Will they be forgotten? It’s hard to say. What is apparent, though, these four performances have set the bar impossibly high. Anyone who knows what defines great acting will not be able to turn away.