When death is rattling at the door

Michael Haneke, director of Funny Games, has made another horror film about a household under siege. That is not how Amour, winner of this year’s Cannes Golden Palm, will be described on the label. “Wistful,” “poignant”, “heartbreaking”: these are the adjectives reserved for old age stories. All are true of this spellbinding portrait of two Paris flat-dwellers (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva), she a dying stroke victim, he a spouse-turned-carer padding about in old sneakers as grey, wrinkled and plaintively outworn as their lives.

Yet this is still, in the best sense, a horror story, even with the luminous work of two French cinema veterans – Riva once starred in Hiroshima mon amour (1956), Trintignant in Un homme et une femme (1966) and Ma nuit chez Maud (1969) – as they knead passion, pathos and sometimes a superfine humour into their retired music teachers, resisting mortality in a sombre-brown apartment where even the furniture has retreated to corners like injured dogs.

Anne and Georges hold out with their memories, their photo albums, their rare visitors. One is daughter Eva, played with a brittle, glaciated self-control by Isabelle Huppert. Married to a jet-setting musician, Eva does scripted – or notated – compassion. But sometimes she loses the words or notes and just weeps and rails. Another “visitor” is the hired nurse who believes in being no-nonsense-bossy with her bedridden patient. Georges chucks her out of the door. He returns to feeding and tending, himself, the awkward body that barely moves, stares with peeled eyes and speaks only with cries of “Mal!” (“It hurts!”).

The film is pitiless, mordant, touching, humane – so where dwells the horror? In the plot that lies beneath: the life-or-death siege, spooky, implacable and remorseless. All Haneke’s films, not just Funny Games, are sieges. The White Ribbon had a village at bay against arcane atrocities. Hidden had a couple besieged by horrific revelations. Here two oldies who have tried to build a fortress against finitude find that the final and the infinite – those twins of death – are at the doors like housebreakers. Early on the couple (before her stroke) return from a concert to find a break-in. In mid-movie Georges has a nightmare about a flooded flat and a spookily reaching hand. Twice near the end, a pigeon – a rat with wings (or even an obscene, animated parody of one of Georges’ grey sneakers) – invades the hallway and is chased, in a forlornly chilling, Beckettian slapstick, by the husband.

Dying is a horror story. Whom do we fool by pretending otherwise? Its most poignant tragedy may be the one most brilliantly pinpointed by Haneke. When death or terminal illness draws near a couple, the first casualty is love. It may not die, but it is lamed, outmanoeuvred, demoralised. The lover no longer coos but must nag; he no longer hopes but must despair. Finally he may even have to plead for recognition. No wonder Amour ends in a scene of “wistful” – at this point we have it – fantasy. The consolations of illusion, of a past yearningly reimagined as a future, are the last, best balm.

Bang or whimper? A big-screen story saga reaching its end hopes to go out with the first, but exhaustion may dictate the second. The final Twilight movie, bizarrely actionless for much of its length, may be the longest whimper in Rom-Goth history. Even the title weakens the will to live. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2 sounds like a section in an instruction manual. “Kit out Bella with red contact lenses. Re-attach her to vampire Edward. Remove Jacob’s clothes, once again, so he can demonstrate his werewolf-ness to a bemused bystander (here Bella’s sheriff dad) ... End with a massed midwinter battle between the main mutants and the Volturi, the team of ancient Roman vampires led by Michael Sheen (death-pale face, Richard III hair), in which bodies and severed heads are tossed about as if in Snowscape Volleyball” ...

This series has made sense and emotional music to millions. So who am I to protest that I was bored pulseless? At least by the last instalment. The first Twilight film, I dimly remember, had touches of fun: a seriocomical bravura in its tale of hormones running gothically amok in a Pacific northwest co-ed. By the time the finale arrives, the saga has taken on the lumbering self-importance of a symphony its composer cannot finish. The reiterations, modulations and superfluous chords go on, and on, as we grope towards that long-awaited final cadence.

Exuberance is ill-distributed this week. We needed more in Breaking Dawn 2. We need less in Australian film-maker P.J. Hogan’s Mental, a hyperkinetic black comedy featuring a barely recognisable Toni Collette, star of Hogan’s 1994 hit, Muriel’s Wedding. Collette’s crack-smoking hitchhiker-turned-nanny-turned-surrogate-mother is, believe it or not, the sanest character in view. The others include Rebecca Gibney’s sectioned-early mum, whose bipolar behaviour has included singing Sound of Music hits while being stressed out by the infidelities of local-politician husband Anthony LaPaglia, and Gibney’s five teenage daughters, all professing mental diseases (“I’m a schizophrenic”) as they disport in their white-picket-fence corner of Aussie suburbia.

The subplots virally multiply. Collette has designs on Taser-happy shark hunter Liev Schreiber; dim but beautiful surfer Sam Clark sings love ballads to a Gibney daughter (till Tasered); Gibney’s manically genteel sister Caroline Goodall grooms life-size dolls (“I’ve brought the girls, they’ve just been glazed”). The movie is surreal, uncontrolled, frenzied: a gift that goes on giving, even though at some points you beg it to stop.

The Pool
is the year’s best boy-and-dolphin tale. In 2007 US documentarist Chris Smith (American Movie) filmed a delicate fiction feature about a Goan boy’s mid-youth crisis, based on a story by co-screenwriter Randy Russell. After five years in purdah, a 2007 Sundance Special Jury Prize apart, it has been rescued for UK audiences by distributor Blue Dolphin. Hooray for them, and for us. Here are filigree detailing, pure-and-simple performances (especially from Venkatesh Chavan as the boy) and a subtly lambent moral tale in which the longing to leave a native town – Panjim, a crumbling demi-paradise of old India – wars with the loves and friendships that make staying worthwhile.

Are you a metalhead? Have you heard of Jason Becker? Even if not, you will be moved by Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, the true tale of a rock guitar wizard struck down, yet miraculously not struck dumb, by motor neurone disease. A living legend to his fans, Becker should strictly be a dead one: his condition was pronounced terminal by doctors. Now wheelchaired and paralysed, he uses eye movements to dictate notes, has them electronically scored, and has produced five albums to date. You wouldn’t believe it if film-maker Jesse Vile had made it up. But this is a documentary and he didn’t. Becker still lives, kept alive by courage, love (his own and that of his family, friends and carers) and a stubborn, inspiring passion for his art.

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