Saturday, January 12, 2013
Amour Movie Review
Michael Haneke makes films that I deeply admire much more than I truly love. They are technically sound. It is clear he has a profound natural ability to use the camera to create chilling scenes, empty spaces that suggest isolation, and stories that reveal various elements of the human condition. Whether it’s the cruel sadism of Funny Games, the psychosexual power of The Piano Teacher, the paranoia of Caché, or the wicked punishment of collective guilt in The White Ribbon, Haneke’s films are always challenging, never made for easy viewing, and rarely offering anything short of material for endless discussion with your cinephile friends.
Upon hearing that Amour, his latest film, and second to win the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, concerned an elderly couple coming to terms with the slow and unstoppable effects of debilitating illness, you’re almost tempted to imagine ways he could possibly have inflected his unique style onto the story. Did this signal a stylistic shift? Most certainly not. Amour, though rather conventional in subject matter, is still at times a grueling experience. Mind you, this has everything to do with Haneke making us uncomfortable with human behavior and not at all because the movie is anything other than brilliant.
The film has a cold open that augurs the sense of doom and isolation that will pervade the rest of the story. As firemen enter a seemingly abandoned apartment calling out if anyone is there, they eventually enter a bedroom sealed from the outside to discover Anne’s (Emmanuelle Riva) corpse in bed draped in flowers. So we know where the story is going and we wait with trepidation to discover how her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintingant) brought her to her final resting place. From there, Haneke flashes back several months to a lengthy static shot of an audience awaiting the start of something. This is his sly way of reflecting his audience back at itself. It’s a shot held so uncomfortably long that at first, before you’ve noticed Georges and Anne, you’ve already begun thinking about how we view performance and the nature of the relationship between performer and audience.
The authorities who force their way into the apartment in the first scene are no more or less intrusive than any other characters, including their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who occasionally visit the couple after Anne is stricken by a series of strokes that leave her incapacitated. Amour is a film about lifelong love and devotion and the lengths and extent of that love. How far will Georges go to give himself over to his wife of more than half a century? She makes him promise that he will never leave her in the hospital. As the film progresses, Anne and Georges become more and more isolated, completely walled off from the world outside, and their relationship slowly shifts from one of loving partnership to one of managed care, which involves feeding, bathing, and clothing.
Riva’s performance has to be one of the most talked about of the year. She is a well-known French actress who has been making films for decades. Her sweet and delicate features make it impossible not to feel such overwhelming sympathy with her. It’s a performance of great physical strength, as she shuts down half of her body and executes every movement slowly and precisely. Haneke’s camera almost never cuts away, which means she had to be in that physical space longer than most actors in similar roles. Trintignant is no less mesmerizing a performer as he tries so desperately to keep his emotions together and hold his marriage in one piece. His few moments of anger or aggression are either sudden and shocking, as when he slaps Anne like a petulant child for refusing to drink her water, or contained and passive, as the moment when he rejects Eva’s visit with a dismissive, but astutely realized, remark.
Upon arriving home after the piano recital early in the film, Georges and Anne discover someone has tried to break into their apartment. The theme of intrusion surfaces again and again throughout the film as Georges grows ever more despondent at the level of care his beloved Anne requires. Two scenes, one uncomfortable and the other disquieting and thrilling, reveal his fear of outsiders. In the first, he fires a nurse he’s just recently hired to care for Anne. It’s questionable whether or not she’s done anything wrong, but it illustrates how no one shows the same level of empathy for our loved ones as we do ourselves. The second has Georges waking in the night to a knock at the door and entering the hallway to investigate. This one tells us more about what’s going on in his head than any other scene in the film. It is a classic Haneke moment and the most electrifying jolt I had at the movies all year. That is the power of his filmmaking.