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Amour is a profound love story that only Michael Haneke could tell

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Amour (2012)

When it was announced, about three years ago, that Michael Haneke had made a movie called Amour, those familiar with the Austrian director’s work had good reason to shudder. This was, after all, the punishing provocateur behind such acts of antagonism as Caché and The Piano Teacher—a man who seemed to delight in invading the bourgeois comfort zones of both his audience and his characters. “Love” did not seem to enter into the filmmaker’s artistic vocabulary. God only knew what he’d subject viewers to in its name.


As it turns out, we were both right and wrong to feel wary. Amour, about an aged husband forced to helplessly watch as his wife of several decades wither away in front of him, is very much a Michael Haneke movie. It sugarcoats no ugly truths, pulls no punches, and spares its audience nothing. Yet, for all the ghastly images the filmmaker carefully and elegantly composes over a grueling two hours, the most shocking thing about the film—at least for those, again, who had endured Haneke’s others feature-length assaults—is how sincere, how entirely un-ironic, its title turned out to be. At its core, the film is a love story, one that plumbs great depths of devotion and depicts maybe the purest act of sacrifice a person could make for their life partner. It’s also, yes, a brutally honest depiction of old age—a film about the unpleasant indignities of life’s August years. But Love And Death would have been just a little too on the nose.

From the moment it premiered, five days into the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Amour was the frontrunner to win the Palme D’Or. None but the staunchest of Haneke haters could deny its stark power. There were a handful of viable alternatives, most notably Leos Carax’s bewildering ode to performance, Holy Motors, which blew minds when it screened toward the very end of the festival. Furthermore, Haneke had one big obstacle to overcome: He had won the Palme just three years earlier, for his black-and-white, characteristically bleak period piece, The White Ribbon. This might have hurt his chances had Amour not landed like a collective punch to the gut, inspiring an emotional response that nothing else in competition could match. The jury, led by Italian director Nanni Moretti, had to have recognized the universal “appeal” of the movie. Amour’s victory was basically inevitable.


Which is appropriate, as inevitability is what the movie is all about. It opens with police knocking down the front door of a Parisian apartment and quickly discovering a festering corpse inside, lovingly dressed and positioned on a bed. This is Haneke coming immediately clean about where his film is headed. It’s an “abandon all hope” sign hung over the first scene, a command to expect nothing less than a two-hour march to the grave. But it’s also a show of mercy from a director not usually inclined to give fair warning. In Funny Games, Haneke savagely pranked his audience, using a dropped blade to strategically exploit expectations and inspire foolish optimism. Here, he lays all the cards on the table: There’s no will-she-make-it suspense, no possibility of a different outcome. By being upfront about how Amour will end, Haneke frees us of the burden of false hope.

Death is life’s great equalizer, the one experience everyone shares. Amour hammers that point home with its second scene, a lengthy, straight-on wide shot of an audience taking seats in an auditorium. Though it’s classical music, not a movie, these on-screen strangers are about to enjoy, it’s still clear that Haneke intends the long take to function like a mirror: This will be you one day, he reminds. Even still, the eyes are drawn to individuals in the crowd, the familiar (if weathered) faces of two French movie stars. They are Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, from The Conformist and My Night With Maud) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, star of the great Hiroshima Mon Amour), a happy and well-off elderly couple on a date to see the latter’s former student, now a master pianist, share the gift she helped foster.

This moment, and the brief one that follows, will be the only time Haneke strays from a single interior: the cozy, elegant flat Georges and Anne share. They return from the concert to discover their lock jimmied, although nothing of much value has been taken. It’s death—or at least the illness that will lead inexorably to death—that’s come like a thief in the night. The next day, Anne suffers a stroke, in a scene so unsettling—in its eerie paralysis and spreading panic—that it could easily be inserted into a horror movie.


Actually, plenty have reasonably pegged Amour as straight horror, built as it is on a rational fear of losing one’s physical and mental capacities to the ravages of time. When I first saw the film, a good seven months after it conquered at Cannes, my mind leapt instantly to one of my favorite movies ever, the 1986 remake of The Fly (directed by Haneke’s Cannes competitor David Cronenberg). At heart, both films are about the abject terror of having to watch the person you love fall apart, day by day, piece by piece. The similarities don’t end there: Like Cronenberg’s picture, Amour takes place chiefly in a single setting, was inspired by the painful death of a family member, and features a truly unnerving nightmare sequence. It also ends with a similar act of devastating compassion. The horror of these supposed horror movies is rarely, inextricably linked to a flush of romantic feeling. In other words, they’re love stories taken to their logical, harrowing endpoints.


Coming as it does from Haneke, Amour naturally doubles as a genre subversion—more specifically, a response to all the falsehoods and rose-colored romanticism of so-called deathbed cinema. “It will go steadily downhill for a while and then it will be over,” Georges tells his grown daughter (Isabelle Huppert) late into the movie, essentially describing Anne’s gradual decline into invalidity. Offering an almost procedural, stage-by-stage rundown of the ordeal, Haneke shows us things that movies of this sort rarely do, from feeding and changing diapers, to learning how to use a motorized wheelchair, to the hiring and firing of nurses. Whereas many dramas about illness bathe their sick characters in a heavenly glow, Amour offers only the gory details. But there is a hard-won empathy to the director’s typically exacting gaze. When Anne struggles, in one scene, to articulate her thoughts after a second stroke, Haneke refuses to cut away, capturing the painful moment in an unflinching long take. The fight to find her words may be humiliating to Anne, but the film argues that not depicting it is tantamount to betrayal—a dishonest disservice to the fight she puts up.


The performances are crucial to Amour; they keep the film from becoming too clinical, too characteristically removed. Haneke’s savviest move was coaxing two legends of the screen out of semi-retirement. The presence of Riva and Trintignant creates a kind of interpersonal history through association. We don’t see the beginning or the middle of Georges and Anne’s love story, but we remember when the people playing them were young. There’s an extratextual power to witnessing what time has done to the visages of once-glamorous movie stars. We are seeing not just these characters, but also the performers themselves, at this late stage of life.


This is more of a bonus benefit of the actors’ involvement. One need not have seen a single one of either star’s prior films to recognize the intimacy they conjure across just a handful of scenes. These opening moments, before the stroke throws the characters’ lives into disarray, are among the warmest of Haneke’s career—for example, look at the vague but unmistakable sense of contentment captured in the image below.


Riva, who scored several awards—and an Oscar nomination—for her performance, has the showier of the two roles. But her great feat is not simply a physical transformation, the way she credibly embodies each stage of Anne’s deterioration. What’s truly valuable about her work is how she manages to create a strong impression of who Anne is, immediately ingratiating us to her, so that the audience is painfully aware of what’s being lost as her mind begins to go. Trintignant, for whom Haneke supposedly and specifically wrote the part, accomplishes something equally impressive: Always watching, with those expressive and wounded eyes, and quietly enduring one of life’s greatest cruelties, he offers a vision of selfless devotion—of putting on a brave face as his world crumbles—without ever coming across as a cardboard saint. The movie’s most devastating moment may be the scene where Georges lashes out at Anne in pure frustration, when she begins to refuse to eat or drink. He can handle taking care of her around the clock, but he cannot accept her desire to put an end to it all.


At a certain point, Amour becomes a struggle between two people with opposing goals—a husband who can’t bear to let go of the person he’s built his entire life around, and a wife who can’t bear to go on living. Both characters are pragmatic intellectuals, and they approach their predicament with an almost complete lack of sentimentality. (Anne’s desire to shield herself from the pity of the outside world, including that of her own daughter, reads as callous but also bluntly honest. Georges echoes her sentiments when their daughter confronts him about not keeping her in the loop: “Your concern is no use to me.”) That lack of sentimentality, a hallmark of Haneke’s work, infects the entire picture, and it is a gift: The director has no patience for bathos or platitudes, and so he strips his premise down to its barest bones. All that’s left is the purity of the love affair, a decades-spanning relationship put through its final trial.


Amour spoke to people, on a level and scale Haneke had never before achieved. He seemed for once not to be scolding, but commiserating, his lacerating honesty applied to a situation that just about everyone could relate to. The film’s reward was mountains of acclaim and a near-mainstream recognition, culminating in a slew of Academy Award nominations, including a Best Picture nod. To the director’s small but vocal army of detractors, however, Amour was just business as usual—another case of him punishing a complacent upper-middle-class, this time by demonstrating how disease penetrates even the insular walls of privilege. A.V. Club contributor Calum Marsh articulately summarized the opposition position for Slant Magazine when he wrote, “Rest assured, this isn’t the work of a newly moral or humanistic filmmaker, but another ruse by the same unscrupulous showman whose funny games have been beguiling us for years.”

To those who think the film is just more of the same from our most hectoring living auteur, I propose a simple thought experiment: Watch Amour and really any of Haneke’s other films back-to-back with your parents and see if they can tell the difference. The overwhelming success of the movie, outside the bubble of arthouse cinephilia, is proof apparent that Haneke touched a deeper nerve—that he was after, and achieved, something more than another slap on the wrist. In its direct and pitiless way, Amour is as profound a love story as cinema has delivered since the turn of the millennium. It earns its title.


Did it deserve to win? Oh, right, there were other films in competition that year, weren’t there? Cannes 2012 actually offered a very solid and eclectic slate of contenders, many of which would have made fine winners under different circumstances. The fest opened with Moonrise Kingdom, one of Wes Anderson’s funniest and most moving confections—and, for this critic’s money, a much better film than The Grand Budapest Hotel. Similarly, I prefer Jacques Audiard’s Rust And Bone to his earlier Cannes winner, A Prophet; Matteo Garrone’s dark comedy Reality to his more acclaimed Gomorrah; and Cronenberg’s first Robert Pattinson vehicle, Cosmopolis, to his second one, Maps To The Stars. The aforementioned Holy Motors is as bewitchingly weird as advertised, and Beyond The Hills proves that former Palme winner Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days) is no flash in the pan. But, to my eyes, none of these films have the lasting power of Amour, which people will still be watching (or enduring?) long after the people who made it are gone. Not to be too morbid about it.

Next up: Gate Of Hell (1953), which I planned to do this month, until I remembered it was Love Week and couldn’t resist the urge to write about Amour instead. But I mean it this time, promise.