“How are you going to write about Amour and Django Unchained in the same post?” my wife asked. It’s an interesting question. If you look at the list of Best Picture nominees, there might not be another two movies that seem less alike. A French drama about a man caring for his sick wife that stars two actors in their 80’s, and a Tarantino-directed western about a slave and a German bounty hunter carving through the pre-Civil-War South in search of the slave’s wife. It’s like finding the thread between Cocoon and The Wild Bunch.
And yet Django Unchained is not purely about violence, and Amour is not as gentle as you might guess. These are two love stories, both containing scenes where the men frequently have visions of their wives in better states (as in ‘being happy instead of in pain,’ not ‘being in California instead of Wyoming’). The execution is a little different, but both movies are about men who would do anything for the women they love.
Didn’t think I was going to be able to do connect the dots, did you? And it’s actually a pretty decent theory, and not at all made-up. Good thing too. If I wasn’t able to connect them, then this post just becomes two straightforward movie reviews, and I can’t do straightforward. It comes out all weird. Roger Ebert and others do serious film criticism really well already. Worse yet, this might have devolved into some kind of pathetic version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon…
Want me to keep going? No? You can play on your own then.
Anyway, both movies are excellent. As I watched Django Unchained a second time, for 90 minutes I thought that this was the best movie I had seen this year. The writing was great, not over-written as Tarantino can do at times, and Christoph Waltz, Jamie Foxx and Leonardo DiCaprio tag-teamed the stranglehold on my attention. There is no other trio of actors in any movie that is more captivating this year. Waltz was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter. He’s good, but not quite as good as he was in Inglourious Basterds, for which he won this same category in 2010. Foxx is even better than Waltz, but I think DiCaprio was most deserving of an acting nomination.
If you look at his filmography, DiCaprio has never really played the villain before. He certainly has the flawed protagonist down pat, but he’s never been a pure bad guy. Well, he’s good at it. REALLY good at it. In one moment, he is the effete southern gentleman, lover of all that is French (a faux-francophile if you will, since he can’t actually speak the language), and in the next moment he is a brutal southern slaver, as capable of physical savagery as the overseers he employs.
The violence in Django has two levels (and it is very, very violent). There’s the campy, cartoonish violence we’ve seen from him before, reminiscent of the spaghetti westerns and blaxploitation films he adores. But he also employs a more realistic and restrained visual style in certain scenes when depicting violence against slaves in the pre-Civil-War American South.
The implied violence can just as shocking, if not more shocking, than his Wild Bunch-style shootouts, but the style-alteration shows Tarantino’s awareness that these things really happened, and in his mind, to make that unrealistic is to show disrespect to the slaves that suffered. Slaves were whipped in real life. Slaves were tortured. Slaves were hunted with dogs. Tarantino isn’t shying away from it – showing it realistically proves how evil slavery was and still is. I don’t think he can claim to be historically perfect, but Lincoln, Argo, and Zero Dark Thirty can’t claim it either.
Or maybe he isn’t that deep and good guys get one treatment, bad guys get another.
Ultimately, I think it’s true that Tarantino cares more about storytelling than history. All he wants is for us to cheer for Django. He wants us to want him to get the girl and kill the bad guys and ride off into the sunset. And he does, of course, but you probably already guessed that. As I said before, I really thought this was the best movie I had seen 90 minutes in, but then it kept going, and going…and going. At two hours and 45 minutes, it becomes more about endurance than enjoyment. I’ll still give it an $8.50, but if he only could have cut 20-30 minutes out, he would have had an absolute masterpiece on par with Pulp Fiction. Too bad.
I don’t think I’ll recap Amour for you, other than to say that I saw an afternoon showing, and then went straight to Ash Wednesday evening mass. As they put the ashes on my forehead, they told me to “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That actually perked me up.
Emmanuelle Riva is up for Best Actress in her role as a dying woman, but just like Dicaprio in Django Unchained, I thought that her un-nominated counterpart Jean-Louis Trintignant carried the film in his role as her husband. Riva does very well with the aspects of portraying a physical decline, but I think the Academy is a little too infatuated with performances that require oddities and tics (Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, DDL in My Left Foot, etc.). Trintignant’s character, thrown into caregiving, was both understated and brilliant. Amour is also an $8.50.
I will warn you that, if you see Amour at an art-house theater like I did, they will show a lot of European foreign-language trailers before the movie. None of these trailers are for happy movies. Most have to do with either the Holocaust, or life in a communist country before the Berlin Wall came down. And even though Amour can be quite sad, I am grateful that at least it took place in a world where the fleeting yet potent joy of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon was merely clicks away…
Jay Kelly blogs at The Head Fake.