Louder Than Bombs, the first English language film by Norwegian writer-director Joachim Trier reveals a different side of the director who gave us the low-key drama Oslo, August 31 (‘Oslo, August 31st:’ a film about those small wasted opportunities of life). It features an ensemble cast of actors including Gabriel Byrne, Isabelle HuppertAmy RyanDevin Druid and Jesse Eisenberg. I had a chance to speak to Eisenberg over the phone about this film (as well as bring up another). As he explains it, “The movie is kind of told from a few different perspectives, and you see how each character deals with grief in a different way. Everybody is kind of acting out in their own way but all because of the same feeling of loss.”

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Every once in a while a movie comes around that solely achieves its greatness due to its performances. It seems like French writer/director Guillaume Nicloux has made such a movie by design. The performances of Isabelle Huppert and Gérard Depardieu drive Valley of Love so much so that their characters are even called Isabelle and Gérard, and the actors are only credited with their last names (see also the poster, which has their names presented in larger type above the film’s title). It’s an acting reunion 35 years in the making, and boy have these screen presences evolved since Maurice Pialat’s 1980 film Loulou.

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Amour - poster artMore than any other foreign language film before it, Amour seems a sure-thing for winning the Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Picture of 2012. The year began with the Palme d’Or at Cannes where the film had its world premiere. It topped many critics’ award lists before winning the Foreign Language Award at the Golden Globes. It is even nominated for Best Picture in the Oscars®. I cannot remember the last time a foreign film crossed over into that category. Beyond the film’s accolades, director Michael Haneke has gained a reputation as one of the more important filmmakers working today. With every new film, the Austrian director has only ever upped his game. Amour is no less an example of his skill as an auteur. From his decisions in casting the lead roles to his efficient use of dialogue, Haneke has an awe-inducing ability to maximize the art of cinema to serve his end. Amour dwells on an elderly couple’s love as the wife debilitates from a stroke. The brilliance of the film lies in how Haneke takes such a simple premise to illuminate the viewer’s relationship with aging, and, in effect, living itself. The director, also the sole screenwriter, makes it clear that his film will be as much about death as it is about life when he opens the movie with the discovery of the body of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) laid out on her bed, surrounded by decaying flowers. He implicates the viewer by next introducing she and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as part of a crowd in a theater staring right through the screen, as a mirror of the cinema audience. In the crowd, people murmur (living) and cough (dying). An announcer warns members of the crowd to shut off mobile devices. After more murmurs and coughs, they applaud before the film cuts to the next scene: a ride home on the metro, where we get a closer look at the elderly couple but still at a distance and among people. The camera maintains a distance to show these are people among people. Anne and Georges are only faces in the sea of coughs and chatter. They are among us, yet they also are us. They are alive and near death. Life goes on, despite it slowing down for them. And, the film implies more subtly, we will all reach that state at some point, as well. Amour2 As grim as it might seem, Amour spends much of its time reminding the viewer of his or her own mortality while humanizing this caring couple. Besides the initial establishing scenes in the concert hall and train, the couple is only ever presented in what will be Anne’s tomb: the couple’s culturally overflowing Paris apartment. They were musicians and teachers at some point before the events depicted in the film. A grand piano sits at the center of giant library, played only by a ghost at one point in the film. Paintings, CDs and books they have accumulated over their long lives together loom over their existence as the occupy their last few days on earth with mostly mundane things. Their kitchen is tiny by comparison, and it is here where Anne suffers her first stroke. Time seems to stop for her as Georges tries to get her attention, but she does not respond. When she comes back to awareness, she carries on as if nothing has happened. Sony-Pictures-Classics-AMOUR-2When Georges tries to explain what happened, Anne has no memory of the event. A frozen moment presents itself as the first shift toward the abyss. Haneke wastes no opportunity to present other frozen moments as eternity, such as Anne’s sudden desire to look at photo album and a beautiful and an exquisite, soundless montage of the paintings, some in detail, in Anne and Georges’ apartment. But the real game-changing moment, a sudden shift in awareness Haneke so skillfully plays with in his films, arrives during a conversation between the couple. There’s an exchange between the two about 45 minutes into the film. It’s a conversation loaded with speculation, what would to do for our loved one should something happen, such as the stroke Anne had so suddenly suffered. Every couple has imagined the thought whether aloud or in private contemplation.  Up until this moment in the film this angle of perception did not come up. They were a couple who did things together. They were a unit, a team who will get through Anne’s ailment together. They had similar tastes and interests that buoyed their many years of marriage. If they could not beat this thing together, they would deal with it together. He offers his view: “Put yourself in my shoes. Haven’t you ever thought it could happen to me, too?” “Sure,” she responds, and here arrives Haneke’s signature twist of perception: “But imagination and reality have little in common.” Thus, the great, unbreachable gulf arrives between the couple. AmourAs Anne deteriorates, they begin to more clearly lose their bond and unified place in time together. It happens in humbling and humiliating circumstances. As a nurse goes through the motions of changing Anne’s diaper, dictating directions to Georges. Anne’s mortified face speaks volumes. Haneke presents scenes like these with no sentimentality, and Riva dives in with him, giving a brave, self-deprecating performance that captures an awareness of the gradual suffering of a helpless, aged person that feels not only heart-rending to watch but uncomfortable (she has also been singled out for a Best Actress Oscar®). Discomfort is also part of Haneke’s aesthetic. He sets up one of these with a visit from a successful former student of the couple (pianist Alexandre Tharaud playing a version of himself). Though the student shows empathy to see his teacher with a useless hook of a right hand, he also has a flourishing career with a recording contract and sold out shows. Alexandre’s moment on earth at the height of his career especially hits hard when he sends them a card calling their strength in the face of Anne’s stroke “beautiful and sad.” Anne cannot bear to listen to his CD after that sentimental note. What does anyone know about dying when they have so much life ahead of them? Amour_013 There are many moments such as these to look for, including several featuring their daughter Eva played by the always wonderful Isabelle Huppert. Of course the subject matter is difficult, but Haneke’s anti-sentimentality— also captured magnificently by the two brave leads— offers as much respect to living as it does death. There is a poetic reveal of the intermingling of life, death and love that vividly comes to light throughout Amour, not least of all in the final gesture of love by Georges to his wife. The best poetry is unsentimental and life-affirming. With Amour, Haneke reveals himself as a true poet of cinema. Hans Morgenstern http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AD-JzGIhk94 Amour is Rated PG-13 (growing old ain’t pretty, after all), runs 127 min. and is in French with English subtitles. Sony Pictures Classics provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens in South Florida at the following theaters on Friday, Jan. 25:

Tower Theater, Miami
AMC Sunset Place, South Miami
Gateway 4, Fort Lauderdale
Cinemark Palace 20, Boca Raton
Regal Shadowood, Boca Raton
Regal Delray, Delray Beach

Up-dates: The indie art house Miami Beach Cinematheque has added Amour to its line-up. It premieres just after Valentine’s Day, Feb. 22. After you’re done celebrating love in all its commercialized glory, go see Amour for your reality check. Visit this hotlink: for ticket informationIt later arrives in mainland Miami’s art house, the O Cinema beginning March 1 (click here for ticket information and screening dates).

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Two movies about two different queens of two different Versailles hit local indie art houses today. Though one focuses on the most famous queen of Versailles: Marie Antoinette and another a wannabe queen of capitalism in today’s socioeconomic climate, the parallels between the two films are compelling.

Farewell, My Queen provides a glimpse into the final days leading up to Antoinette’s flight from Versailles after the storming of the Bastille by the people. The Queen of Versailles, meanwhile, examines the financial downfall of a wealthy Orlando, Florida family who has to stop the construction of what would have been the largest house in the United States, based on the floor plan of Versailles.

Marie Antoinette’s story seems almost mythic in its lessons of decadence. Yet, people never seem to learn, as the great empire of the United States of America now seems to barrel toward oligarchical rule, and the class divide grows more and more real. From the US government’s struggle to balance human versus corporate rights to the programming that celebrates the rich and famous on TV, you’re either rich or you want to be rich. Just to side-track into another film-to-film comparison, look at the French production of Farewell, My Queen compared to the American-made, Sofia Coppola film Marie Antoinette, both films offer distinct views on that icon of France’s history. Coppola seems to celebrate the decadence and paint Marie as a victim of her fate, while indulging in a beautiful mise-en-scène. Meanwhile, Benoît Jacquot, the French-born director of Farewell, My Queen is of the French socialist majority who will not soon forget the starving of the people under the decadent reign of King Louis XVI and his queen.

Farewell, My Queen covers the last few days of Louis XVI at Versailles. Day one of the film features some grand sweeping shots of the royal grounds. The colors, light and shadow are so brilliantly contrasted the scenes look like paintings. It’s July 14, 1789. If you are not French, you might have to read up on French history to understand the significance of the date marks the start of the French revolution with the storming of the Bastille, now known as Bastille Day. One key point about the French people’s rise against the monarchy that has resonance today is a tax that was unfairly distributed, hitting the poorest hardest.

We never see this majority that rebelled depicted in Farewell, My Queen. They only “appear” in threatening letters to Versailles naming  the nobles the people wanted to see beheaded. Hints of the monarchy’s slipping control appear in the form of dead rats that float in the canals on the property where even servants can relax in a gondola ride. Servants also complain of being served stale bread. “Some people make it last a week,” a kitchen server tells the girl Louison (Lolita Chammah – Daughter of Isabelle Huppert!), one of Antoinette’s handmaidens.

The film is actually most focused on Louison’s roommate, Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), another handmaiden, who seems to be a favorite of the queen. Sidonie seems an obedient girl but also sycophantic, passively trying to get close to the queen. Sidonie seems to treasure the gold-leafed clock the queen has given her to wake her up on time to come read to her, and it stands out in her modest servant quarters.

Diane Kruger plays Antoinette as a fragile lunatic on the verge of falling to pieces as her empire crumbles around her. She is the embodiment of social disconnectedness, almost catatonic and sickened by the fancy garbs and gorgeous rooms she must inhabit. The sets and costumes look gorgeous through the lens of cinematographer Romain Winding, but weigh heavy on the queen. Kruger gives an ethereal performance.

Despite the film’s almost oppressive ornate quality and the impending revolution at Versaille’s door, Sidonie remains devout. When it comes time to help Antoinette’s dear friend and implied lover, Yolande Martine Gabrielle de Polastron, Duchess of Polignac (Léa Seydoux),  leave Versailles, Sidonie is willing to put her own life on the line to help in a scheme protecting her from the bloody-thirsty masses.

While Farewell, My Queen seems a slow-burn take of the burden of riches, The Queen of Versailles is a sprightly piece by comparison. Documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield focuses her lens on the Siegels, the patriarch of whom is currently suing Greenfield for misrepresenting his timeshare empire as a crumbling mess (Read “New York Times” piece). But David Siegel, like Louis XVI to Marie Antoinette, seems a bit player to his wife, former model and mother of eight, Jackie Siegel. During the quick-paced opening, a newspaper headline flashes on the screen: “It’s good to be the Queen,” just as Jackie is introduced. At first, the film seems focused on the half-finished mansion David, 74, aims to build for his 43-year-old wife. Once complete, it will be the largest house in America, and it just happens to be based on the palace of Versailles. But the film soon turns into something more profound: a surreal reflection of the common man extending his credit into bankruptcy, a symptom that led to the Great Recession of 2008.

Both of the Siegels never make any apologies for their extravagance. “Everyone wants to be rich,” Jackie says. “If not, they want to feel rich, and if not, then they’re probably dead.” That line would probably have some resonance over poor Sidonie who tries to stay by her queen’s side to the bitter end. Of course, everyone knows how it ended for Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette (spoiler alert: they were beheaded).

Meanwhile, David believes he put George W. Bush in office. He then adds, with a nonchalant laugh, that must mean he is also responsible for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So who cares about the loss of life there? Not the Siegels… that much.

Lost in her own cloud of blinding, never-ending riches, it never occurs to Jackie that it might be a challenge to maintain eight children until her husband tells her she needs to cut back. She says she just kept having the kids because it would be fun. Why should she care when she has a devoted live-in nanny? The nanny, Virginia Nebab, lives in a miniature playhouse outside the Siegel’s home. Inside the playhouse, which the daughters of Siegels didn’t care much for, Nebab must fold up a cot to walk around. She talks about having to sacrifice raising her own kids back home in the Philippines to work in the US and send money home. Though she left her son when he was 6 years old, 20 years ago, and has not seen him since, she says, “It’s OK. I still have kids. The Siegel kids,” and then wipes tears from her eyes.

Both films prove something horrible about greed: it’s dehumanizing quality. All of these people seem out of touch. When his timeshare leasing empire falls on hard times, David spends all his time cooped up in his dark office at home trying to crunch numbers and save the derelict Versailles II. His wife has to coax him to the diner table to sit with the children for dinner on his birthday. When asked if he gets any strength from his marriage. He says plainly after a pause: “No.”

Both films are quite different in tone. Farewell, My Queen offers a sombre, steady countdown to the end of an empire. Meanwhile, the Queen of Versailles has an ironic, almost black humor. Still, both offer a powerful focus on the consequences of decadence. You feel the ignorance of that famous, almost flip statement by Antoinette hanging over both films: “Let them eat cake.”

Hans Morgenstern

Trailer for Farewell, My Queen:

Trailer for The Queen of Versailles:

Farewell, My Queen is Rated R, runs 100 min. and is in French with English subtitles. It opens today, Aug. 3 at the Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale and the Tower Theater in Miami and then on Aug. 10 at the Cosford Cinema.

The Queen of Versailles is Rated PG, runs 100 min. It opens today, Aug. 3 at the Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton and O Cinema in Miami and then on Aug. 10 at the Cosford Cinema.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)