Love, as it begins and ends

Good and great directing can appear self-evident. You know it when you see it, even if it can be hard to explain what exactly you're seeing. As Andrew Sarris wrote in The American Cinema, his magnificent, sublimely eccentric taxonomy of good, bad and fringe directors, "direction is a relatively mysterious, not to say mystical, concept of creation."

I don't know how Sarris would have ranked Michael Haneke and David O. Russell. Haneke's Amour and Russell's Silver Linings Playbook are as different from each other in mood, look, feeling, cinematic technique and visual style as is possible to find in theaters. Amour stars the octogenarian French legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as an elderly couple, former music teachers, who confront their mortality after she falls gravely ill. Silver Linings Playbook stars Bradley Cooper as a schoolteacher who, when the movie opens, is released from a mental institution into the care of his mother. He moves back home with his parents and soon starts dancing with and around a tough and tender and nearly as unstable widow played by Jennifer Lawrence.Both movies are, in other words, love stories. One shows love and a shared life at their inception; the other shows life, and the love that it sustained, ending. In each, a home plays a critical role, as do the characters' movements in these personal spaces. Home is where the heart is, as well as heartbreak, other people, memories, mementos and symbolic talismans. How Haneke and Russell convey the central relationships in their movies opens a window onto how each director expresses meaning through the dialogue and the performances.

Amour and Silver Linings Playbook share something else: a critical scene in which each couple sit at a table during a meal and talk, and an ordinary scene becomes something else. The meal in Silver Linings Playbook takes place about 40 minutes in. By that time Pat (Cooper) has met the widow, Tiffany (Lawrence), and asked if she would like to go out. The scene opens as he walks to her house on Halloween night. Pat stops, the camera circling him, and you see him as he watches Tiffany emerge from the dark, coming toward him. They walk and enter a diner. Russell mainly uses close ups during the scene, using classic over-the-shoulder shots to show one character's face as he or she talks to the other. The conversation turns to Pat's estranged wife, with whom he's obsessed. Tiffany talks about her recent sexual escapades, which result in him moving his face closer to hers.

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