Don’t be fooled by the possibility of a kinder, gentler Michael Haneke. It would be easy to let down your guard given the title of his latest, gruelingly good film, Amour, and the release poster’s image of a beautiful, aging woman’s face cupped by loving hands. But Haneke has made a decades-long career out of crafting haute horror stories, and old habits die hard. As do the habits of Amour’s octogenarian couple, struggling to hold on to routines as if that could stave off the inexorability of death.
Director Jafar Panahi appears on screen for almost the entire duration of his latest film—making breakfast, getting bad news from his lawyer, staging an impromptu read-through of a script the Iranian government has forbidden him to shoot. Panahi is not directing, though—at least he’s not supposed to be. As his cameraman and collaborator reminds him, even yelling “cut” would be considered an offense. The resulting footage is just as ontologically coy. The feature, which makes its U.S. debut this week, is titled This Is Not a Film.
Who are you to judge? Another’s life, the beliefs and attachments, rational and otherwise, that make up another’s choices—how can anyone evaluate such things? Yet the arguing Iranian couple in A Separation demand judgment. They face the camera in the opening scene, a comely woman with dyed-red hair under her veil, and her bearded, exasperated husband. Simin (Leila Hatami) and Nader (Peyman Moadi) are presenting their case for divorce to an unseen magistrate and in turn, to us. She seeks a better life for their daughter abroad; he refuses to leave behind his home and his elderly father, who is stricken with Alzheimer’s disease.