Emmanuelle Riva Faces the Subject of Death Head On in ‘Amour’

Emmanuelle Riva in Amour

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

French actress Emmanuelle Riva has given us astonishing performances in movies like “Hiroshima mon amour,” “Thérèse Desqueyroux” and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s “Blue,” but now she has received the greatest acclaim of her career at age 85 in Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” In the movie she plays Anne Laurent, a retired music teacher who suffers a debilitating stroke, and we watch as her body and mind slowly deteriorate. The performance Riva gives is magnificent and not the least bit melodramatic, and she more than deserves to be among the nominees for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.

“Amour” actually marks the first movie Riva has headlined years as she tends to be picky about the projects she chooses. In talking with Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter, Riva said she only wanted to work on projects which were good, and she ended up doing more work in the theater than in film. However, she did not hesitate at the opportunity to be in Haneke’s movie as she responded strongly to the screenplay and found that the role came to her at the right time.

“I’m sure you know that roles for older women in cinema are not that numerous. And when you’re 84 years old? It’s not very often that you find a role that matches you. I felt that since I am really in the last stage of my life, this was a tremendous gift that was given to me,” Riva told Feinberg.

“Fortunately for me, my own age corresponded exactly to the age of the character that was going to be portrayed in the film. It was really a very miraculous kind of thing that this role should come to me when it did,” Riva continued. “I thought that the script was very, very strong. The writing was very powerful, and it was very authentic, and it was the authenticity that touched me very much.”

Considering how “Amour” does deal with the theme of mortality and is an emotionally draining movie to sit through (many said they cried during the movie and after it had ended), this must have made it seem like the kind of project actors would be quick to shy away from doing. No matter how good the screenplay is, this movies deals with questions many of us don’t want to know the answers to for a long, long time. While humans can suffer from a stroke at just about any age these days, most people still believe they only happen to the elderly. But in an interview with Sharon Waxman of The Wrap, Riva said she accepted this role without any hesitation.

“Afraid? No, not at all,” Riva told Waxman. “Why would I be afraid? This role presents the subject of the film that touches each of us, every human on the planet. As an actress, it’s so exciting to be engaged in a role like this. I would never have felt fear for this. If an actress is afraid, she should head for the door right away.”

“I was so happy in the work,” Riva continued. “Every day, every day. Two months of work. It was such happiness-a feeling of complete fullness. Of life, of death, of love. I never lost the excitement of the work. I was so infinitely happy during this shoot. So serious, but it wasn’t sad at all.”

It’s also easy to assume the mood on the set of “Amour” must have been very tense considering the grim subject matter. You might also think the cast and crew would approach each day with a stone faced serious as they dealt with characters who are at death’s door, and this especially seemed to be the case with Haneke directing. His films “Cache,” “Funny Games” and “The White Ribbon” have dealt with the darkest parts of the human existence, and on the surface “Amour” looks to be not much different. Riva, however, told Xan Brooks of The Guardian of how things on the set were not severely strict, and that the mood at times was actually quite playful.

“The subject matter is obviously intense. But we had a lot of fun along the way,” Riva told Brooks. “So much laughter, so many funny things. I remember once, when I was playing dead, I had to stay quite still. But when the crew went to look at the monitor, they came back laughing. I said, what’s so funny? And they told me that my toes were wiggling. My toes! I didn’t even know they could see them. So, I had to do the whole scene again and concentrate very carefully. I think my feet have a will of their own.”

Indeed, it’s movies like this one which test not just our emotions, but also how we see and treat diseases of any kind. Riva has spoken very highly of Haneke as a director and said he knows exactly what he wants and is not a bully about making his vision become a reality. And while this movie may seem infinitely sad, Riva never saw it as a scary one to be in or watch. She made this abundantly clear while talking with Tracy McNicoll of The Daily Beast.

“Because it is about a lady who becomes very sick, people believe it is difficult [to play]. But no, no. We incarnate a role and voilà,” Riva told McNicoll. “I knew people stricken like this. I knew, I saw; there are many. And performing that seemed fascinating. Sure, it wasn’t easy. But there is a rigor, there is a conductor in Haneke, a conductor who knows the right note to strike in things. He told me, ‘no sentimentality.’ So, I understood right away. No sentimentality. So that becomes really very interesting to perform. Because there is a restraint, a distance that is a pleasure to experience.”

While “Amour” remains the least watched of all the Best Picture nominees of the year, many are still rooting for Emmanuelle Riva to win the Best Actress Oscar. Right now, the front runners look to be Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook” and Jessica Chastain for “Zero Dark Thirty,” but this is a year where anything could happen at the Oscars. It would certainly be a great cap to an extraordinary career for this French actress who has appeared in many classic movies throughout the years, but Riva right now is taking all the acclaim and potential job offers in stride.

“If by chance people would still offer me roles, I’d still like to do them. But if not, that’s OK. I love life,” Riva says. “I love life to death. If I don’t act in another film, who cares? I’m 85, it doesn’t matter. I’m still alive and that feels great.”

SOURCES:

Scott Feinberg, “‘Amour’ Star Emmanuelle Riva, on Brink of Making Oscar History, Looks Back at Career,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 17, 2013.

Sharon Waxman, “Oscar’s Oldest Nominee, Emmanuelle Riva, on ‘Amour’: It’s a Gift in the Last Stage of My Life,” The Wrap, February 13, 2013.

Xan Brooks, “Emmanuelle Riva: ‘You don’t say no to a film like Amour,'” The Guardian, November 8, 2012.

Tracy McNicoll, “Oscar’s 85-Year-Old Darling: A Talk with Emmanuelle Riva of ‘Amour,’” The Daily Beast, February 15, 2013.

Gaspar Noe’s ‘Climax’ is a Hypnotic Descent Into Hell

Climax movie poster

I will never forget when I first watched Terry Gilliam’s cinematic adaptation of “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas.” Seeing the main characters played by Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro descend into a drug-fueled inferno proved to be one of the most insane and chaotic cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to where I felt like a hammer was constantly bashing at my head. I was in college at the time, and I described it to my friends as being one long acid-trip nightmare. One friend, her name Wendy, looked at me and said, “Oh yeah, like you would know!” This led to another person, Matthew, across the table laughing and responding, “Hey Wendy, he’s right.”

Seriously, you don’t need to have any experience with drugs of any kind to call “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” an acid-trip nightmare, and the same goes for “Climax,” the latest cinematic opus from Gaspar Noe. Like the majority of his films, it proves to be exhilarating, hypnotic and gloriously out of control as we watch a group of dancers try to get a hold of their sanity after they discover the sangria they have been drinking has been spiked with LSD. Whether or not you have had any experience with this drug, you will agree the trip these characters go on is not the least bit pleasant.

“Climax” takes us back to the winter of 1996 and opens with a series of audition tapes featuring dancers who are being considered for a French dance troupe being created by Selva (Sofia Boutella) and DJ Daddy (Kiddy Smile). Each dancer makes clear how intense their passion is for this particular artform and what they will do to make a career out of it. What’s interesting about this opening we are watching them on an old-style tube television which is surrounded by VHS tapes and books, all of which have influenced Noe’s filmmaking and personal beliefs. This includes such cinematic escapades like “Suspiria,” “Salo,” “Hara-Kiri” and “Possession,” and among the books are one by Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, famous for his ultra-negative views on life and humanity, “Junkie” by William S. Burroughs, “LSD Psychotherapy” by Stanislav Grof, and “Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo” (“We Children of Bahnhof Zoo”) by Christiane F. Seeing these materials around the TV set should make it clear that Noe is not about to play it safe for anybody.

Following this comes one of the most exhilarating dance sequences I have in a movie in a long time as we watch a five-minute-long scene in which characters perform with utter abandon as they contort their bodies in ways which amazed me to no end. As the camera swoops over the performers, we are sucked into their dance space to where I wanted to feel the passion they felt. Seeing this reminded me of when I first watched the music video to Madonna’s “Lucky Star” on MTV, back when they actually showed music videos, and of how I wanted to experience the same level of joy she was having.

Noe is up to his old tricks again as he starts “Climax” with the end credits first and then give us the opening credits about 45 minutes later. As for the title, it appears exactly where it should. It does take a while for things to get crazy as Noe takes his time introducing us to these dancers as they discuss the sexual conquests and/or the future they hope to have sooner rather than later. As this goes on, the techno music plays non-stop, and once you notice it slowing down all of a sudden, you know this shit is about to get real.

Once the characters begin to realize they are under the influence of a psychedelic substance they were not planning on ingesting before their performance, the movie becomes a slow descent into chaos, and I could not take my eyes off the screen for one second. Even as the events became more and more horrifically chaotic, I was sucked into the madness everyone was trapped in, and I had no idea of where the story was going. This kind of unpredictability is very rare in movies today.

It’s especially impressive to learn that “Climax” was shot in just 15 days and with a script only five pages long. Learning of this made me believe this film could have been an enormous mess were it in the hands of another filmmaker, but Noe gives this sheer chaos a structure even as the performers let themselves run wild with the material. Some will complain this movie has no real story or plot, but I am certain anyone who has taken LSD can assure us how most psychedelic trips do not come with a three-act structure.

Once again, Noe employs his and Harmony Korine’s favorite cinematographer, Benoît Debie, who gives us such striking and absorbing colors throughout. Whether the lighting is dark green or blindingly red, Debie captures the insane madness in all its visual beauty, and when the white of the snow appears it feels like such a relief. This makes me look forward to Korine’s upcoming movie “The Beach Bum” all the more as Debie is the cinematographer on it too.

Noe has gone on record in saying the production of “Climax” was the most peaceful he ever had as a director, and this is regardless of the movie’s content. Apparently, there were no arguments on set, and no drugs or alcohol were used by anyone during filming. The latter is worth pointing out as the cast does an excellent job of looking like they are being ravaged by a narcotic they didn’t plan on taking. They could have easily looked ridiculous to where the movie could have been laughable, but everyone looks to be on their game here.

The cast is made of both professional and non-professional actors, and the one who stands out the most is Sofia Boutella. The French-Algerian actress has long since made a name for herself with such memorable performances in “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “Star Trek Beyond” and “Atomic Blonde,” and watching her here is mesmerizing as she takes her character of Selva from a place of sanity to the polar opposite of it. She could have easily fallen into the trap of emoting here, but she never does as she makes Selva’s helpless predicament all the more frightening as this trip she is forced to take offers no easy escape for her or anyone else.

“Climax” may not reach the nightmarish heights of “Requiem for a Dream,” but it stands out as one of Noe’s strongest efforts. It doesn’t reach of what I feel is his masterpiece, “Enter the Void,” but it is stronger than his last movie, “Love 3D” which many were quick to dismiss as just another porno flick (I disagree). I for one am glad such daring filmmakers are still working in a time where superhero movies continue to dominate everything in the cinematic landscape. We need at least one filmmaker to break the rules, and Noe is no doubt one of them.

Again, I don’t think you need any experience with psychedelic substances to realize “Climax” is one long acid-trip nightmare. While the late Steve Jobs found an amazing level of creativity after experimenting with LSD, I don’t think the characters here will be anywhere as lucky, assuming they survive.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Paul Verhoeven’s ‘Elle’ Gets a New Trailer and an ‘Empty Stare’ Clip

elle_usposter

Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven has given us unforgettable movies like “Robocop,” “Total Recall” and “Basic Instinct,” and he had gleeful fun satirizing the war propaganda machine with “Starship Troopers.” Now he returns with his first movie in ten years, his last being the excellent “Black Book,” the psychological thriller “Elle” which stars the brilliant (and not to mention brave) French actress Isabelle Huppert. From watching the trailer, it looks like Verhoeven is up to his usual button-pushing tricks, but the viewer should not go into this expecting “Basic Instinct” redux.

Based on the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, Huppert plays Michèle Leblanc, the head of a leading video game company, and the plot synopsis describes her as seemingly “indestructible” as she “brings the same ruthless attitude to her love life as to business.” As the movie’s trailer begins, Michèle is at a dinner party where she tells a group of friends she was sexually assaulted, and she presents this confession in a calm and collected manner. Whereas you might expect a scene where a rape victim has a nervous breakdown as she accepts the reality of what she’s been through, Michèle doesn’t even blink an eye. Her friends, however, are shocked at this news to where they encourage the waiter, who has just brought a lovely bottle of wine, to come back in a few minutes.

Throughout the trailer, we see Michèle go about her work and life as if nothing has changed, but it becomes clear the attack has forever left a huge psychological scar on her which cannot be wiped away. Her need for revenge is understandable, and Verhoeven’s movies are well known for their characters getting vicious revenge on their attackers, and the trailer shows her as a ticking bomb waiting to go off. In the end, one can remain cool for only so long.

“Elle” is being released by Sony Pictures Classics, and they recently unveiled a clip from the movie titled “Empty Stare.” Watching this clip, there’s no doubt Verhoeven picked the right actress to star here. Huppert has taken on challenging roles in Michael Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher,” Christophe Honoré’s “Ma Mère” and Claude Chabrol’s “La Cérémonie,” and she looks to have risen to the challenges Verhoeven has put in front of her here. As Michèle tells an unsettling story about her father to a male friend, Huppert makes you wonder if she is telling the truth or simply playing around with someone who doesn’t know her very well. The beauty of watching Huppert is how she creates such vivid and frightening imagery with just words. Other directors would add flashbacks to give this scene more emotional power, but Verhoeven doesn’t need to do this when he has Huppert to work with.

“Elle” was shown at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival where it received critical acclaim and a seven-minute standing ovation. Guy Lodge of Variety proclaimed on Twitter that “Isabelle Huppert might be our best living actor, and ‘Elle’ might be Paul Verhoeven’s best film.” Verhoeven has said the movie is not to be mistaken for an “erotic thriller” in the vein of “Basic Instinct,” and that anyone who goes into it thinking it is will be “disillusioned.”

Adventurous moviegoers look to be in for a dark treat when “Elle” opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 11. Please be sure to check out the movie’s trailer and the “Empty Stare” clip below.

Exclusive Interview with Eva Husson about ‘Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)’

 

Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story),” just by looking at its trailer, seems like the French version of “Kids,” but that’s not even remotely true. Based on a true story, a fact we don’t discover until the end credits, it follows a group of ordinary teenagers who live in the suburban neighborhoods of France and participate in sex parties they refer to as “bang gangs.” In the center of the sexual shenanigans is the beautiful George (Marilyn Lima), one of the main organizers of these parties and who experiences some intense inner turmoil. After being spurned by her would-be boyfriend Alex (Finnegan Oldfield) who goes after her best friend Laetitia (Daisy Broom), George begins feel increasingly isolated from everyone around her even as the parties become increasingly reckless. In short, this story will not end well. Or will it?

This movie marks the feature film directorial debut of Eva Husson whose previous credits include the short films “Hope to Die” and “Those for Whom It’s Always Complicated.” Many consider her one of many directors to emerge from the world of music videos, but she will be quick to silence you on that. Born in France, Husson earned an M.A. in English literature from the Sorbonne, and she would later move to America to pursue an M.F.A. at the American Film Institute. She did make some music videos along the way, but her focus has always been on writing and directing feature films.

With “Bang Gang,” Husson has pulled off an impressive debut filled with strong performances by a mostly non-professional cast, and she is aided by the lush cinematography of Mattias Troelstrup as well as the atmospheric music score by White Sea.

I got to talk with Husson while she was in Los Angeles to promote “Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story” which she described as “a movie about teenagers falling in love in the midst of a sexual apocalypse.” She explained how she pulled off the long tracking shot at the movie’s beginning which lasts for several minutes, why she put the term “based on a true story” at the movie’s end instead of the beginning, and she pointed out how the project was inspired by stories involving American teenagers and not French ones. She also spoke of why she had her cast watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” and Lars Von Trier’s “Melancholia” before the film shoot began.

Please check out the interview above. “Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story)” will be available on iTunes starting August 23.

Bang Gang poster

Movies My Parents Wanted Me To See: Cache

 

Cache poster

Cache” was written and directed by Michael Haneke who made “Funny Games” (both the original and the remake), “The White Ribbon” and “Amour.” My parents gave me the DVD to this film as a Christmas present, and I went ahead and watched it before going out to see the “Funny Games” remake in theaters. With all the polarizing opinions regarding that film, I felt it was in my best interest to see “Cache” beforehand as I was afraid that if I hated it, then I would never get around to watching the DVD my parents gave me. I have enough trouble as it is watching the other movies they have given me over the years, but this one had a great quote on the DVD cover by Steven Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Like Hitchcock, only creepier.” I read that quote and was immediately intrigued about what this movie had in store for me.

“Cache” opens up with a long and uninterrupted shot of an exterior of the residence the main characters live in which lasts a good three or four minutes. But suddenly we hear voices and eventually realize we are actually watching a videotape along with two people who rewind it at one point. The couple is made up of TV talk show host Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil) and his wife Anne (Juliette Binoche), and they have received this tape from an anonymous person for reasons unknown. As this couple continues to receive more videos, their lives unravel at an increasing rate as the layers of the movie’s story keep getting peeled away.

Describing a movie like this is difficult because its creator makes it ambiguous to the point where we have no choice but to draw our conclusions as to what we have witnessed. These videos reawaken long and dormant memories for Georges as we come to see events from his childhood which may or may not be real, and it uncovers a guilt he thought he had long since made his peace with. But instead, he discovers that deep emotional scar never really disappeared, and now it is being picked at like a nasty scab more than ever before. In the end, it does not matter who is making these videos as much as it does the effect they have on Georges and those closest to him.

It’s clear to me Haneke really likes to play around with the audiences’ expectations. We are so conditioned by the formulaic movies mainstream cinema churns out with consistent regularity to where anything which challenges the norm seems designed to give us unbearable headaches. Those looking for a resolution which tidies up everything to everyone’s satisfaction will be endlessly frustrated with “Cache.” Haneke is not a director interested in spelling out everything for you as he is in trying to get you to figure out the story for yourself.

What is revealed is that Georges did something to another person he never really forgave himself for. Now the past is coming back to haunt him, and it ends up isolating him in his own guilt and fears and alienates him from his family. Anne, Georges’ wife, is incensed she is not being let in on any guesses her husband has as to who might be putting them through such immense anxiety. Georges is never portrayed as a bad person, but it doesn’t matter if he is a good person. Guilt tears away at him, and while some make peace with the past, he may never have that luxury. What’s worse, this guilt may end up being carried on by his son who only has inklings of what is going on between his parents.

Haneke won the Best Director award at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival for “Cache,” and it was probably well deserved. He keeps you hooked into the story which is like an onion that keeps being peeled away, and he succeeds in generating strong tension without the use of a music score. In fact, there is little to no music played throughout the entire movie. The only other movie I can think of which succeeded in keeping us on the edge of our seats without the aid of a music score is “The China Syndrome.”

All the performances are excellent without ever being flashy. Daniel Auteuil creates a morally ambiguous character who is not always easy to get along with, but we still care about what he goes through from start to finish. The most recognizable actor here is Juliette Binoche, and her performance is another in a long line of brilliant ones she has given. Binoche makes Anne’s panic and anxiety all the more real as she keeps getting shut out in the cold as to what’s really going on. Also, Maurice Bénichou, who plays a very pivotal character, brilliantly shows how a person can be threating while remaining perfectly calm.

“Cache” is a brilliant exercise in suspense, and it shows how much of a master Haneke in generating suspense. There are no easy answers to be found here, and the ending itself leaves a lot of things open, but not all movies are meant to be easily understood. Some are meant to engage you mentally so you can draw your own conclusions. What’s wrong with having a movie like that every once in a while? We need challenging movies which break the typical formulas dominating most of American cinema today. “Cache” engages you with the unblinking eye of the camera, and it traps you in the world of its characters to where it is impossible to look away. Movies don’t get more suspenseful than this one.

* * * * out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.