Into the darkness

Life is lived on a continuum. Stand on a street corner and consider those walking or driving by, others sitting in a coffee shop, or peering into a store window — all are somewhere on the arc, inevitably approaching their own existential end times. There is nothing to be done but to live and create a narrative as full and complete as possible. Or not. And acknowledge that our culture worships at the shrine of youth and we relinquish, often with regret and struggle, life's vital and robust qualities.

There is a scene in "Amour" — a film of such punishing, unflinching starkness as to be almost unbearable — wherein a caretaker holds up a mirror to Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) so she can see how lovely her newly brushed hair looks. Anne turns away. Filmmakers, most especially those in Hollywood, have done exactly that, refusing to portray honestly the severe and seemingly arbitrary realities of old age. Preferring instead that gilded reality offered up with such delight as is found in "The Marigold Hotel."

Hollywood embraces life full of youthful love and optimism. Or life in the middle, replete with a hard-edged tension, always resilient, perhaps disappointing, but rarely ravaged by brittle, fragile and lonely old age. And never, not ever, a film such as "Amour." Instead, Hollywood remains our co-conspirator in denial.

An elderly married couple, Anne and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), refined and cultured piano teachers, now retired, return from a late-night concert to their well-appointed Paris apartment. Their practiced interaction is intimate in its brevity. But it is the next morning, as they sit in the dim sunlight having breakfast, that life takes an unexpected turn: Anne, in the middle of their conversation, falls silent, as if struck mute, staring straight ahead, unseeing. It turns out that her carotid artery is blocked and cannot be repaired. And so begins a painful journey, one that never leaves the apartment.

The fragility of life bears down on Anne and on Georges in a claustrophobic and harrowing manner that is unrelenting. He becomes her caretaker, their incarceration now final, their love buttressed by an unwillingness to yield, finding refuge in moments of profound tenderness and equally profound torment.

Anne is slipping away, present but not present, and so they find themselves at odds: With love and anger he wills her to live, to get better; she wants only to die.

To watch "Amour" is to marvel at the risk and courage required of the filmmakers, for surely they were aware that the reaction of the audience will be to turn away, to shrink from those graphic moments — bleak and heroic, ever escalating — that define and frame the end of days for Anne and for Georges. The film is unforgettable.

Tangentially: "Amour" is nominated for Best Foreign Film and Emmanuelle Riva for Best Actress.

"Safe Haven"

Nicholas Sparks, author of "Safe Haven," has clearly found a formulaic sweet spot and recycles it with just enough variation to convince his readers to return, book after book. Ditto the screen adaptations.

Consider Sparks a kind of book-to-movie franchise, always sentimental and romantic with one part thriller/mystery and a dash of sustained uncertainty leavened with sadness.

And that's "Safe Haven." A damsel in extreme distress, Katie (Julianne Hough), having escaped a bloody domestic event (which is shown through flashbacks), is now on the run. On impulse, she gets off a cross-country bus that has stopped in Southport, a small North Carolina town. She decides to stay, finds a cottage and a job waitressing.

She soon meets the local general store owner, Alex (Josh Duhamel), a young widower with two great kids. Resisting, still fearful, she is slowly drawn into his life (it all starts with a bicycle) and into the life of Southport.

What she doesn't know is that a relentless, obsessed detective is hunting her, a threat to her having found not only romance but also safe haven.

Consider "Safe Haven" Sparks' valentine to his fans. And assume that films like this make critics decidedly cranky. But know that the director of the film is Lasse Hallstrom, an accomplished director who can create silk out of straw, his shots bathed in sunlight or awash in rain. Plus the screenplay is better than the novel and intended to squeeze the heart just a bit tighter. Which is what Sparks is all about.

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