Amour is a brilliantly acted, impeccably crafted film that I never, ever want to see again.
Director Michael Haneke makes a lot of those. The silver-bearded, doggedly humorless Austrian filmmaker has a temperament perhaps best described as punitive. Films like Cache and The Piano Teacher relentlessly torment their upper crust, bourgeoisie protagonists—and, by extension, the kind of audiences who go see subtitled art films. To be a Haneke fan is to be a bit of a masochist.
Here is a worldview so sadistic that in both his original and English language shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games, just when the tortured family at the center finally catches a break, the movie cruelly, abusively rewinds itself before our very eyes, only to replay the scene with a far uglier outcome. His message is loud and clear: There’s no way to win any of Haneke’s games, and they aren’t very funny.
With Amour, he’s found a villain even more ruthless than Funny Games’ homicidal home invaders, crueler than The White Ribbon’s proto-Nazi children and as devastating as the apocalypse in his Time of the Wolf. Here the boogeyman is old age, wreaking havoc with the inexorable passage of time.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anna (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers in their 80s, comfortably settled into their twilight years in a vast Parisian apartment that looks like a library. There are occasional visits from their self-obsessed daughter (Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert) and one trip into town for a performance by Anna’s most successful pupil (pianist Alexandre Tharaud, playing himself.) But a mysterious pre-credit sequence has already warned us of unfathomable darkness on the horizon, and clouds quickly begin gathering one morning when Anna goes blank over breakfast.
It was probably a stroke, and another will follow. Soon comes partial paralysis, then loss of speech. With all the modern medical advances these days, death often takes its sweet old time, and Haneke keeps the camera locked down in the middle distance, fading in and fading out on Anna’s advancing physical and mental disintegration within rigidly composed frames. It’s a chilly, pitiless vision that offers no relief, just decline.
There’s an ache in Trintignant’s performance that is palpably heartbreaking. But this is hardly an emotionally effusive couple, and you’re not going to find any sentimental speeches in a Michael Haneke movie. Georges and Anna knew these days would eventually arrive, and they’re just trying to get through the inevitable with a bit of dignity intact. “We have always coped, your mother and I,” he flatly says to Huppert’s singularly useless daughter, the matter-of-fact words belied by an ineffable sadness behind his eyes.
Georges promised not to send Anna back to the hospital, and the walls begin to close in on that formerly spacious apartment as the grueling demands of home care take their toll. It’s an ordeal, sitting through Amour, the hushed air of austerity broken only by almost imperceptibly understated moments of tenderness. I don’t think I’ll soon shake the loving embrace with which Georges carries Anna from the toilet, as shattering a depiction of “for better or for worse” as has probably ever been captured onscreen.
Haneke’s obviously playing with iconography here, casting giants of French cinema as if urging us to recall Trintignant in A Man and a Woman or Riva in Hiroshima mon amour, throwing in an extra-textual layer of memories as we witness the ravages of time.
And yet, as with most Haneke movies, I find his precision can be suffocating. The filmmaking is always so fussy and exacting, determinedly marching through the director’s chosen thesis statement with no deviations or surprises. There’s no room for spontaneity within his hermetic compositions, no sense of life going on outside these exquisite frames. Amour has been improbably embraced by the Academy Awards and hailed as something of a humanistic breakthrough for the director, probably because this is the first time in Haneke’s career that he doesn’t seem to be getting off on all the suffering.
But we suffer all the same. Once you know where Amour is going—and the prologue leaves viewers little opportunity to assume otherwise—there’s nothing left but to run down the clock, which I believe might be the point. But that doesn’t make it any easier to sit through.