Michael Haneke's Chilly, Lauded Amour

The letting go

There are two things that are certain in life. One is that death will come for every one of us. The other is that every film Michael Haneke makes will have a fair shot at the Cannes Palme d'Or. Amour, Haneke's much-garlanded latest, is set almost entirely within a well-appointed Paris apartment, amid the cathedral hush that is the director's preferred working condition. As ever, Haneke shoots in a style that is reserved and restrained—in a word, "cold." Although it is in color, I remember Amour in black-and-white.

Endemic to Haneke's dry, ratchet-turning movies is the anticipation of an Inevitable Awful Event—let us call it the "IAE"—an event in which the incipient horror of the human condition pops out from behind the veneer of civilization, an event that the veteran Haneke viewer understands, upon going in, is part of the contract. The IAE breaks the brittle surface of Haneke's style, and the bracing plunge after the crack of the ice delivers a harsh lesson. His pedantic, castigating filmmaking is a vehicle for these lessons, which have never yet confirmed man's high opinion of himself. The unit of the shot or the scene is rarely a source of pleasure or pain or conflict or resolution or beauty or individual life, only a flat and neutral plane against which the harsh truth can stand out all the more starkly.

With Amour, Haneke places his IAE out front. The police burst into a locked apartment and discover a corpse—skin purplish-white and crumply like parchment, neatly laid out on a bed—that appears underneath the film's title.

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Also Read:
- Michael Haneke on Amour: "When I Watched it with the Audience, They Gasped!"

Amour
Written and directed by Michael Haneke
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens December 19

After this opening, which leaves little doubt as to what's in store, we're introduced to an elderly couple, Georges and Anne. She looks familiar; so does their bedroom. But for now, they are happy, returning home from a piano concert to their bastion of civilized mutual contentment. (There is a vague threat from the outside world—someone has recently tried to jimmy their front door.) As with the couple playing a guessing game with opera CDs at the beginning of Haneke's 1997 Funny Games, Georges and Anne's natural environment is the world of high culture; she is identified as a former piano teacher, like Isabelle Huppert in, well, The Piano Teacher, and Huppert appears here in a supporting role as the couple's middle-aged daughter. Furthering the sense of continuity, this Georges and Anne are the latest link in a chain of Georgs/Georges and Annas/Annes who have run through Haneke's filmography, as Claude Chabrol rearranged the triumvirate figures of Hélène, Paul, and Charles through his work of the late '60s and '70s.

Amour begs such comparisons to the Euro art house heyday, for Anne is played by 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour), and Georges by 81-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant (My Night at Maud's, The Conformist), and our memories of their past films color our response to the all-too-familiar tragedy that they will endure, seen in detailed, clinically documented stages. Georges and Anne's long connubial harmony, which their daughter's memories attest to, is thrown into discord when health problems suddenly leave half of her body collapsed and useless. This is the first in a succession of attacks that forces Georges to minister to his diminishing wife through her slow decline, his fierce will for her to live pitted against her increasing will to die. Haneke elides the moments of crisis, focusing instead on details of daily caretaking, the process by which a home slowly becomes a hospice. I don't recall the words "Je t'aime" being spoken aloud in the two hours of Amour, but they are constantly reiterated in acts of consideration, tenderness, and tending to toilette.

An intensely private actor capable of almost embarrassingly confessional moments, Trintignant is at his most touching as a man vainly trying to decipher his wife's blurred speech so as not to let go the thread of their lifelong rapport ("There are so many stories I never told you," he says). When Georges dismisses a condescending nurse to defend what's left of his wife's violated dignity, the outrage blazing from his eyes attests to Trintignant's undiminished power.

This humble-yet-soulful performance is a triumph not only over the humiliation of sickness, but also over the punitive monotony of Haneke's cinematic deathbed vigil, filmed in static compositions that stare through the apartment's nested series of doorways as Georges putters in and out of frame. The centerpiece involves Trintignant chasing around a stray pigeon trapped in the apartment, presumably significant of his wife's soul (I hesitate to use the word with regards to such a flatly materialist film), longing to be set free from earthly fetters.

Haneke's elegant reserve is meant, perhaps, to allow viewers the space to contemplate the leering face of death, a sort of cinematic memento mori. During his film's lulls, I found myself remembering movies, thanatological and otherwise, that had given me something more to chew on: A snatch of Schubert's Impromptu in G flat major D899 No. 3 in Amour recalled the same piece's use in Bertrand Blier's 1989  Too Beautiful for You; the process of slow physical breakdown depicted through abrupt narrative jumps, Maurice Pialat's ferocious 1974  Le Gueule Ouverte; the subject of an aging couple, Leo McCarey's 1937  Make Way for Tomorrow, a film so mawkish as to suggest that there might be something worthwhile in sharing one's life with someone else before the return to dust. This year alone already brought Yorgos Lanthimos's Alps, a mysterious, funny-sad film poking around the empty spaces left by death.

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1 comments
jhepworth1946
jhepworth1946

I agree totally with your review of this film....and applaud your perceptiveness and courage in going  against the critical current (clueless current sad to say!) ....I'm 67 years old and have been watching films for years and years.....here is my review of the film that I posted at Metacritic under the name jhep  (among the User Reviews)....I gave the film a "1" out of "10" and this was based exclusively on the strength of Trintignant's performance....... 


"It’s alarming to see how savvy some filmmakers are becoming at knowing just what material and what “spin” will gain them big critical jackpots and festival jury prizes.

Amour is a case in point and suggests that the line between demographic-massaging advertising agencies and shrewd, cachet-hunting filmmakers is diminishing at an alarming rate.

The film is basically a genteel “infomercial” that argues the case for  euthanasia; it`s an aggressive, in-your-face exercise and a very one-note, aggressive in-your-face exercise.

What it also has “going for it” - in some circles at any rate- is the Jerry Springer-like touch of casting two well known stars of yesteryear, now in their 80s, in the lead roles. This brings an eerie Reality TV touch to the proceedings and something of a “frisson nouveau” to your card-carrying film buff audience (the demographic-massaging angle). Think how much, by way of  comparison, the casting two relative unknowns would have affected the film’s reception. In Teen Speak it would have been …..“B-O-R-R-R-I-N-G !!!”

Jean-Louis Trintignant in particular struggles to breath life into the sparse characterization that writer/director Haneke has provided him with. However his efforts are in vain, for the forces of “infomercial-hood” are aligned against him here and (even more artistically crippling) Haneke’s somewhat gleeful penchant for the morbid. This latter  holds sway as his camera zooms in to capture every detail of the physical and mental disintegration of Trintignant‘s wife (now 85-year-old Hiroshima Mon Amour star, Emmanuelle Riva.)  Indeed, Riva’s character soon becomes a sort of laboratory specimen that Haneke is studying intently under the microscope ( “I wonder what will “go” next ?” he seems to be trying to figure out) with the result that The Wife, which is the sort of generic entity that Riva is finally reduced to, ends up becoming disconcertingly like that giant bug that Gregor Samsa turns into in Kakfa’s The Metamorphosis !!  By way of contrast, one wonders how Jean Renoir or Douglas Sirk might have handled this material. The fact that Riva’s character is not particularly sympathetic to begin with only adds to the uneasiness- indeed- queasiness- we end up experiencing as we’re invited to observe the spectacle of her relentless undoing. Sad to say, by that point in the film either this latter, somewhat detached and clinical  sensation or else flat out boredom seem to be our main options. Amour is an award-winning and highly pretentious film and the two go together much too often for comfort these days."

Once again thanks for your very intelligent and perceptive review. 

 your truly

John Hepworth

 

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