This review is part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage.
In our preview piece for this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I cracked that “Michael Haneke making a film called Love is sort of like Brett Ratner making a film called Good,” but now that I’ve seen the film, I feel that my crass analogy was a bit misguided. The rap on Haneke is that his films are mercilessly cold (the trio of movies that cemented that reputation are informally referred to as “The Glaciation Trilogy”), and that his signature two-tone beard is fertilized with the broken dreams of his audience, but his latest feature refutes that impression -- Haneke believes in love, he just isn’t sure that the movies know what it is. Playing at this year’s New York Film Festival under its original title (which Sony Pictures Classics has mercifully decided to keep for its American release), Amour is an unflinching drama that finds comfort in honesty, an inquisitive portrait of death in the modern world that feels more exploratory than it does foreboding -- this is Haneke’s Herzog film, it’s his Tree of Life, investigating the most difficult mysteries of the human condition despite barely taking his camera outside the walls of a musty Paris apartment.
Amour opens with a bang -- a brilliant jump-scare that more traditional horror movies would kill to provide -- and then instantly proceeds to gut the story’s most obvious suspense. French authorities bust through the barricaded doors of an abandoned apartment, and the stench of death immediately overwhelms them. Haneke’s camera fluidly follows the police around the apartment, eventually landing on the decomposing body of an elderly woman, garlanded and alone on her deathbed. Then, a smash-cut to the title card that feels straight out of von Trier, the word “Amour” plastered across the screen. Strap in, folks, it’s gonna be a bumpy night.
The film’s plot, such as it is, concerns the tenants of that apartment in their final months living there. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are both 80 years old, and they’ve been married to each other for most of them. Retired music teachers, they are obviously intelligent, hyper-educated, culturally refined types, an impression underscored by the elegant shape of their home and the mannered creak of its wooden floorboards. One night, they go to see a performance by their most accomplished former student. When they return home, they find that their apartment has been robbed. The next morning, Anne suffers a stroke. We’ve already seen her dead, now we will see her die. And just when you thought that The Avengers was certain to be the biggest hit of the year...
On paper, it probably sounds like a slog, brutal even by Haneke’s bleak standards, and the kind of film that requires a certain masochistic streak to appreciate, or even endure. On the screen, however, Amour is one of the most comforting films ever made. Most movie romances treat love like it’s the key to eliding life’s unpleasant truths (kiss + credits = hakuna matata!), but Haneke observes love as our best method of accepting them. Haneke once described his work as “An appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false answers... for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus,” and Amour is imbued with an insistent physical reality that strips away the cowardly ornamentation of montages and “happy endings,” answering the claim that movies must choose between being a refuge or being a mirror, when the most moving of them are so often a little bit of both.
Despite Haneke’s confidence, and regardless of the language to which it’s been translated, the film’s title seems to be missing a question mark. Amour certainly has the sure-footed swagger of a traditional masterpiece (i.e. no non-diagetic music, austere camerawork, and a supporting turn by Isabelle Huppert as the couple’s estranged daughter), but unfolds with the vulnerability of a child (to that end, the film is unexpectedly funny, and its most ostensibly obvious symbolism is touched by a playful opaqueness). Trintignant and Riva’s entrancingly plain performances -- bolstered by their iconic careers -- are critical to sustaining that impression, and Haneke’s measured pacing doesn’t push the viewer out of the film so much as it provides you with pockets of opportunity to deepen your personal commitment to it. To paraphrase the immortal words of Foreigner, Haneke wants to know what love is, and he will take everything away from his characters until he finds it by omission. He strips Anne of her body, her speech and her privacy, and posits that love might be the word for whatever’s left.
Haneke introduces Georges and Anne’s apartment as a tomb, and then uses long takes and a stoically creeping camera to illustrate that transformation. He’s unafraid to observe the banality of Anne’s diminishing condition (her initial attack is a non-event, and devastating for that), and refuses to shy away from the manner in which Georges must assist Anne with the bodily functions that Anne can no longer perform by herself. But Haneke’s concern for notions of control is ultimately in service to his interest in performance, and the extent to which death is unfailingly public. When Anne and Georges attend the concert, we stare at them from the stage, and when they return home to find that their apartment has been invaded, it’s we who have broken in to loiter there, turning the couple’s most painfully intimate moments into the stuff of widescreen spectacle. Georges’ shuffling gait is like a geriatric dance, his care for Anne following the steps of a rigid choreography.
But as we question why we’re watching this steady pageant of bodily horrors, or what Haneke believes the definition of love to be, there’s simply no way of arguing that these two people don't share a love between them -- the kind of flawed, possible love that we should all be so lucky to enjoy -- or that few marriages can reasonably hope for a happier ending than one partner watching the other die. It’s “till death do us part,” not “if,” but there’s something profoundly beautiful in facing that finality head-on, or in contemplating why we ritualize the process of teaming up for the journey there.
Amour may not pump you full of hot air and send you soaring out of the theater when the lights come up (this isn’t Beasts of the Southern Wild), but it’s reassuring where most portrayals of human relationships are simply desperate. One of the best films of the year and a deserving winner of the Palm d’Or, Amour is cinema at its most compassionate, a masterful reminder that the only thing harder than defining love is denying it.