Indisputably one of the great movies of 2012, Amour won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, has been nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, and ranks high on many critics’ 10-best lists, including my own. It’s also indisputably one of the more harrowing movies of 2012, with its unblinking depiction of an elderly couple facing death. And Amour is only one option in what I’ll call painful-good movie watching this awards season. Zero Dark Thirty — top of my 10 best of 2012, and another title with five Oscar nominations — doesn’t flinch from the graphic depiction of torture inflicted by Americans on Iraqi political prisoners. Then there’s The Impossible, which doesn’t shy away from the realistic re-creation of a devastating tsunami that separates a severely injured mother (Naomi Watts, with her own well-deserved Oscar nom) from her husband and two of her sons. Her eldest boy screams in terror nearby as he is hurled and battered by the murderous wall of water.
I know movie-loving people who, for the most rational of reasons, do not want to see these excellent pictures. Maybe they are the children or grandchildren of seniors in decline. Maybe they’re old people who have no need or desire to contemplate such a stark memento mori. Maybe they’re parents of young kids and can’t bear to see images of a child in peril. Maybe they’re decent human beings who recoil at scenes of torture. Who doesn’t?
I have no business arguing that you — we — should endure the pain of a difficult movie for its own reward, not when movies have historically been a source of escape and entertainment. My rule is, you don’t have to watch any movie you don’t want to watch, period. So when friends ask for recommendations, I know enough to factor in, for example, that so-and-so hates battle scenes, or sickens at the sight of any animal in distress, or prefers not to watch French dramas in which a pretty woman’s legs are eaten by a killer whale. (No Rust and Bone for her!) But as we approach the Oscar telecast on Feb. 24 and reach the crest of awards season, I’m thinking a lot about how much we have to gain from difficult movie-going. There’s something singularly rewarding about giving oneself over to a movie in which pain (or, more mildly, discomfort) is part of the picture’s greatness.
To enter into Amour and the world of husband-and-wife retired music teachers Georges and Anne (so exquisitely played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) is to share the awe of observing deep, complicated marital love — amour — in action and hard at work at the universal business of grappling with mortality. Indeed, it’s exactly our close-up view of one couple’s intimacy and physical frailty, staged with typically unflinching surgical precision by writer-director Michael Haneke, that moves the Amour experience to something more profound than mere sadness that people get sick and die, and that a living spouse is left behind to grieve a dead one. Watch closely as Haneke, Trintignant, and Riva (and in a small, vital role, Isabelle Huppert as a conflicted daughter) tease out the nuances of fear, hatred, anger, resentment, and grief that shade the sweetness of until-death-do-us-part love. They turn Amour into a revelation about human psychology as well as a mournful tale.
Watch those controversial Zero Dark Thirty scenes in full horror and disgust, as American agents torture prisoners for information on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Even the tumble of reactions those scenes provoke in us adds to our understanding of how the world works — or should, or shouldn’t.
And watch the emotional devastation of a mother torn from her children in The Impossible, and the power of maternal love is bound to feel that much more inspiring. (Another probable response: increased hugging of children whom parents will have wisely not brought along to the movie.)
It’s important to distinguish between an emotionally difficult movie and an intellectually difficult one. Put it this way: Although I responded immediately to the gorgeous audacity of The Master‘s scope and style, I needed a second viewing to gain a clearer understanding of Paul Thomas Anderson’s great knotty drama about a self-invented guru and his damaged disciple in post-WWII America. But I was never what you’d call undone by the movie. Similarly, David Lynch’s persistently strange dream-state opus Mulholland Drive has always challenged my head more than my heart. (Lynch’s Inland Empire? That challenges my butt.) In the middle, I think, lies the work of Lars von Trier, whose movies, including Breaking the Waves, Dancer in the Dark, and Melancholia, are both viscerally upsetting and artistically provocative. (Antichrist is just plain ugly.)
And then there are topics so inherently agonizing that a good filmmaker will get out of the way and let the story speak for itself. That’s what Steven Spielberg did with Schindler’s List. He was aware that when approaching a subject as uniquely sacred as the Nazi Holocaust, a clear narrative (well, and the Spielberg name) is the best way to invite in an audience who might otherwise pick something cheerier for a night at the movies. Those who never, ever want to see any movie about the Nazis’ extermination of Jews cannot be faulted for their refusal. Still, they’re missing out on one of Hollywood’s definitive Holocaust narratives, by one of Hollywood’s filmmaker kings. (For a vital movie about Cambodian genocide, see The Killing Fields. For a devastating movie about Armenian genocide, see Ararat. I’m serious: See them.)
Personal identification inevitably intensifies any screening experience. Gut-punched as I was, I can only imagine the effect that 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry could have on a young person grappling with gender issues. But to my mind, the power of a movie like Amour or Boys Don’t Cry or The Killing Fields lies in its artistic ability to take all viewers to places and emotions that may be painful or new, but that bind us together as humans. I’m no war veteran, yet I can still recall my convulsive sobs watching Peter Weir’s 1981 war drama Gallipoli, starring a young Mel Gibson.
The more we can empathize with the pain of others, the richer our own lives. It’s no accident that so many great movies demand a piece of our heart.