Romantic love has inspired more popular music and movies than any topic that I know of. People want to believe in love, or we must have been told that is what we should desire. Not only we have been told that true love will find you in the end, but a man once claimed that the love you take is equal to the love you make. That blissful feeling of all-encompassing devotion is the foundation of many relationships and families. But we all know there is dark side to this powerful emotion. Like a cute little Mogwai getting fed after midnight, things could turn from cute to ugly pretty quickly. Surely, the movies and songs about heartbreaks are just as popular as, if not more than, their chirpy counterparts. How do you shake away Wong Kar-Wai’s devastatingly beautiful In The Mood For Love? You just don’t. The arts see the beauty in our shattered dreams and immortalized them, for the most part, through rose-tinted glasses. Among the many love stories on celluloid in 2012, Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea and Michael Haneke’s Amour stand out as two polar opposites yet they are also curiously connected to each other in their uncompromising take on the unnerving pain when love puts one between a rock and hard place.
Indeed, both films begin in quite the morbid fashion. Without any prompt, The Deep Blue Sea introduces its protagonist Hester (Rachel Weisz) by the way of her suicide attempt. In Amour, Michael Haneke also spares little time to unveil the bitter end of his leading lady. Since rarely do Haneke’s characters reach the end credits unscathed, the only surprise here is his decision to show us the results this early in the film. The Deep Blue Sea, though, caught me by surprise because I assumed it would be in the same vein of David Lean’s Brief Encounter or Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. Boy, was I wrong. As heartbreaking as the two previous films were, the devastation is not nearly as bleak as watching The Deep Blue Sea’s heroine swallowing sleeping pills and turning on the gas from her heater. Then Davies’s film cuts between several short flashback scenes of Hester recalling her time with her handsome lover Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) and her older husband William (Simon Russell Beale) while the soaring string compositions of Samuel Barber are playing in the background. The purposely disorienting editing drops the viewer into Hester’s whirlwind of affairs in intriguing fashion, thus eliminating any presumptions that this is just another generic period romance.
The Deep Blue Sea is a gorgeous looking picture. Everything from the production design, cinematography, costumes to the dashing actors transports the audience to a nostalgic idealized version of post-war Britain. Yet Hester’s agony— the bitter pill beneath this cloak of eye candy— looms large over the narrative. On one hand, she is dealing with the fallout of Freddie’s subsiding passion as reality sinks in. On the other hand, she has no interest in going back to her caring husband—it was impossible for her trade the thrill of falling in love with the comforts of domesticity once she has taken a bite out of the forbidden fruit. Davies’s film decidedly embraces its heroine’s sexuality in the kind of astute portrayal that a lesser director would resort to sweaty bedroom sequences.
What makes Hester a fascinating character is while her vulnerability eschews the traditional gender expectations, the film doesn’t take the bait of shaping her a character for some simplistic statement on womanhood. Her internal conflict is multifold and her contradictions make her human—all of which is perfectly embodied by Rachel Weisz, whose performance here has been lauded as one of the best in 2012 despite receiving little attention in the awards circuit. It is practically unimaginable to see The Deep Blue Sea delivering such quality with any actor other than Weisz, who is flanked by her two understated but nonetheless brilliant male counterparts. Hiddleston, who plays the young and handsome Freddie, tackles a character who seems to be a careless lover at first glance but his complexity reveals as the film unfolds. In Davies’s script adopted from Terence Rattigan’s play of the same name, there is no right or wrong when it comes to love. Despite his stature and power as a high court judge, Hester’s husband William continues to painfully carry a torch for her even after her betrayal. Beale’s brief but memorable turn as William diminishes any thought of Hester as a mere victim—in love, one can be as much the tormented as one can be the executioner. With a controlling mother and unfaithful wife, poor William is perhaps the most hapless character in this lot. I can imagine an idea for a spin-off with him as the central character, like how Alec’s apartment-lending friend in Brief Encounter inspired Billy Wilder’s The Apartment.
“A lot of rubbish is talked about love. You know what real love is? It’s wiping someone’s arse and changing the sheets when they wet themselves and let them keep their dignity so you can both go on,” Ms. Eaton says to her lovesick tenant Hester. This is the thread that linked Davies’s film to Michael Haneke’s Amour for me, as I have mentioned in my previous review of the latter film. The premise of Amour—I shall avoid repeating most of what I’ve written in my earlier review—is the gradual demise of an elderly couple when one of them suffered a debilitating stroke. Despite its title, Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner seems to be more preoccupied with death than it is with love. Emmanuelle Riva has received numerous accolades for her fearless performance as Anne, but Jean-Louis Trintignant was the one whom the Austrian filmmaker specifically wrote the role of Georges for and has steadfastly served as the film’s backbone. The “amour” in the title is perhaps referring to Georges’s devotion, which is tested by life’s final trials and tribulations.
In comparison to his usually grim take on human nature, Amour is likely Haneke’s gentlest film to date, but still, no one should assume that this is going to be milk and honey. In fact, Haneke’s approach remains clinical—like in his previous films, he is interested in human behaviors in reaction to their environment and circumstances. In spite of his Austrian origin, Haneke’s philosophy is much closer to that of behavioral psychologists John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner than that of his compatriot Sigmund Freud (with the exception of The Piano Teacher). He relishes in observing his characters in situations that reinforce socially unacceptable behaviors and inviting viewers to see the logic in the path that they (the characters) have chosen. Thankfully, Amour does not come on as heavy-handed as his more outlandish efforts (both Funny Games) but it remains persistent in eliciting visceral responses because he is very much interested in engaging his viewers as active participants who are asked to consider the implications of our consumption of popular media—in this case, his films.. Haneke understands the act of provocation is a tool which he can use to push us to examine our personal view on the subject— you may or may not have experienced death at such close range but Amour holds up a mirror in front of the darkest part of your psyche and wrangles your mind to places where you don’t dare.
What about the opaque presence of the pigeon in Amour? Haneke always enjoys a good bit of unanswered mystery in his film, be it the ending of Caché or the unknown culprit in The White Ribbon. Let’s just say the pigeon is a Rorschach test among his series of behavioral observations. It is also a welcoming shred of poetry in this weighty piece of work.
Love rarely ends gracefully—not in Terence Davies’s film and certainly not in Michael Haneke’s. As we see in Hester, the highs are rapturously high and the lows are grievously low. And how many would have the bravery and dedication of Georges when your long-lasting love is coming to a harrowing end? Yet when we see Anne flipping through her old photo album with her one functioning hand and reminiscing the sweet times she and Georges once had, perhaps it was worth giving it a go.