Romantic Realism: Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) – Blu-ray review
You say Amour, Michael Haneke says à mort. Love and death are inseparable, as old age conspires to end a lifelong romance.
(Michael Haneke, 2012)
People generally know what to expect from a Michael Haneke film: a baleful gaze that burrows into the human condition with merciless, forensic precision. So what happens when he makes a film whose title translates as Love, which becomes a genuine Oscar contender not only in the ghetto of the Foreign Language Film category but in major categories for directing, acting, writing and Best Picture?
You could, as ace parodist @Michael_Haneke has done on Twitter, form the opinion that Haneke’s coldness was a mere act and that he’s a cat-loving prankster lol. Or you could call shenanigans on Amour’s reputed softening up, as Brett Easton Ellis did, calling the film “On Golden Pond remade by Hitler.” The truth lies somewhere in between. This is a genuinely empathetic, emotional film… but in lieu of touchy-feely tenderness Haneke has achieved universality by sticking to his guns and giving us the cold, hard truth.
In Amour, the physical and metal decay of old age are neither symbols of nobility nor causes for quirky behaviour, but a horrible matter of fact. This is a film in which – with a characteristic lack of condescension to the audience’s palette – Haneke shows octogenarian Anne (played by the New Wave legend Emmanuelle Riva) stripped and bathed by a nurse, or man-handled as her husband is shown how to change an adult diaper. At one point there is an off-screen crash, but we have to wait for a near eternity for Georges (fellow veteran John-Louis Trintignant), himself elderly and infirm, to walk falteringly across his apartment to find out if she’s OK. At another juncture, Anne rebukes Georges for hovering at her bedside as she’s about to read, saying he doesn’t need to check how she holds the book. In deference, he leaves; Haneke stays to dispassionately observe her behaviour.
Cruel? Or just honest? Georges admits “none of all that deserves to be shown” and yet here we are. It marks a sea-change from Haneke’s earlier Funny Games, which famously left the worst excesses of violence to the imagination, in order to focus the audience on the aftermath of suffering. But there’s no hypocrisy, because Haneke is consistent. Then, he was offering a corrective to filmmaker’s sadistic feeding of the audience’s appetite for gore; here, he’s bringing to light things that happen everyday, but which society (and, consequently, cinema) has sanitised. The unspoken implication is that our priorities have been skewed.
That still makes Amour sound merely academic, but there’s another element, too: emotion. Early on, a character notes that people are “ashamed of crying,” and that shame becomes the other thing that Haneke wants to correct. For all the numb sadness at the inevitability of decrepitude, there remains something desperately alive about the film. Darius Khondji’s camerawork captures every line and wrinkle on the stars’ faces, but not in a grotesque, Francis Bacon way but in the style of photographer Martin Schoeller, whose hyperreal compositions illuminate faces as maps of lives lived.
The same applies to the rich, burnished look of the apartment, far from being a Miss Havisham-style mausoleum but a place where love – for art, for culture, for each other – is obvious from the messily tactile appearance of books on shelves, of pots and pans, of favourite chairs. While this is a deeply claustrophobic film, as events conspire to consign Georges and especially Anne into prisoners, a symbolic open window provides a direct line to the outside world, and the freedom that death brings.
And then, of course, there are two startling, sorrowful performances. Riva is devastating as the sophisticated woman driven into self-loathing by the forced abandonment of refinement; there is despair and defiance in her solitude, determined to spare her husband prolonged pain by pushing him away through unreasoning cantankerousness. That’s a kind of love; the selflessness of martyrdom. Yet it is Trintignant who breaks the heart, committed to his pact that she shouldn’t go into a home and effectively shunning outside help (not least from his daughter) in order to retreat into the privacy of his marriage for as long as they have left. It’s more purgatory than paradise, but it’s also psychologically and emotionally true in a way Haneke arguably hasn’t achieved before.