There are several words fitting to describe Michael Haneke’s films, between shocking, disturbing, cynical, demented, prying, trying, and the occasional statement of beautiful. But of all the thing Haneke is, it would be a grave insult to say he is ever lost. His narratives are rarely drastically complex, even at their most befuddling. When Caché comes right down to it, it’s about a family who is taunted by a figure from the father’s past. It’s the truly unique way Haneke presents these stories that has us navigating them with care. Amour represents a potentially manipulative story that Haneke handles with delicacy and, unlikely as it is to say, love.
The minute the title was announced, I was certain we were in for another enigma ridden piece of fantastically affronting cinema. Such a title from Haneke has to be ironic, right? As it turns out, Haneke is playing honestly the romantic, telling the story of an elderly couple of former music teachers. When Anne suffers an unsettling attack one day, Georges becomes determined to take care of her as she becomes physically incapable. As simple a story as one could ask for, with only a short scene at the beginning not taking place inside their home apartment. The sight of the two of them amongst an auditorium full of theater-goers shows them as an inseparable and lovely pair.
It’s how strong their love is at the start that makes the next two hours such a devastating trial for Georges, Anne, their daughter Eva, and us the audience. When something as oppressive as the slow onset of death comes into a family, it becomes nearly impossible for that not to dominate the conversation. Georges and Anne try ever so hard to let their lives be about happier things, but Anne’s impediment becomes taxing on her own individual spirit. Georges too is becoming frail in the wake of this, his more pleasant aspects being stripped away to reveal the “monster” Anne says towards the start that he can be sometimes.
The still and unflinchingly observant nature of Haneke’s filmmaking builds not claustrophobia from being in the same apartment throughout the film. Rather it makes the trip from room to room even greater of a trial, as if it’s inconceivable of Anne traveling out into the much more dauntingly expansive world. Haneke also fills the film with moments of peculiar sojourn, taking a minute to admire the paintings of Georges and Anne’s apartment, or following Georges in a disturbing nightmare sequence that shows Haneke hasn’t lost his disturbing touches. It all builds an atmosphere that is so slowly in decay, much like their own mortality.
What Haneke does best, however, is to let the actors fill the spaces with their touching and tragic portrayals. Jean-Louis Trintignant carefully plots Georges’ fall from levity to torment, at the start showing such a sprightly expression in his discourse with Anne. As Anne grows more trying on Georges, he becomes bitter by the situation he has been placed irretrievably in. Trintignant doesn’t make Georges ever a cartoonish anger, letting his cruel jabs come from an ironically polite place. He also imbues a psychological frailty to Georges that comes less noticeably than Anne’s.
If you ask which performance of the two is the greater triumph, the honor goes to Emmanuelle Riva, who excels in physical handicaps and expressing deep emotions despite that impediment. Amour is not merely the story of a man dealing with the loss of his wife, but a woman dealing cruelly with the loss of herself. It never escapes her that she is losing control of her body and her mind, all the while the outside world only looks on her with pity rather than as a functioning person. More devastating is the shame she remains capable of exuding at the end, as Anne knows how feeble and inane a creature she has become. It twists inside her, even furthering her state of unrest.
Isabelle Huppert does have a presence, though not nearly as hefty as that of Riva or Trintignant. As daughter Eva, she still manages the line of emotional devastation and the ever-gratifying icy line-reading. As Georges asks frustratedly to change the conversation to something else, Huppert intones realistically “such as?” Though the entire film has a constricting single-set aesthetic, cinematographer Darius Khondji nonetheless makes the image look somewhat beautiful with a cool but not dull sense of colour. In dictating process, Michael Haneke finds a particularly strong intimate setup to play in, but he’s not poking fun at suffering. He’s telling a love story in the most suffering of contexts, leaving us the viewer marveling not just at his reserve, but now at his extraordinary feeling. Who knew it was there all along?
Bottom Line: Amour realizes a heartfelt Michael Haneke, reserving his anti-accessible motivations in favor of honest human tragedy led by two towering leads.