Haneke’s Devastating 'Amour' Examines The Bonds Of Love
Published: Sunday, January 27, 2013
Updated: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 13:04
In a famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote that “active love is a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams.” It’s a formulation that remains no less true today, and it’s a reality that we are still reluctant to contemplate—especially in Hollywood. Arriving as a tonic is the extraordinary new film Amour, which turns an unflinching eye on the tribulations of an elderly couple approaching the end of their days together. Amour—an Austrian-produced, French-language film that has garnered four Oscar nominations—is, as its title suggests, about love. But it is specifically about the harsh, fearful nature of active love rather than the dreamlike, idealized love so often proffered at the movies.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are two retired music teachers living in Paris. As the film begins, the two octogenarians are enjoying a comfortable retirement together, but things soon change as Anne’s health deteriorates. An alarming moment at the breakfast table, when Anne plunges into a near-catatonic state, leads to a hospital visit, a botched surgery, and eventually a stroke that leaves Anne partially paralyzed. As George struggles to take care of his increasingly sick wife, who refuses to go to a hospital, both husband and wife must come to grips with their looming mortality, and the daily struggle of how their love can endure under such trying circumstances.
Amour is directed by Michael Haneke, the Austrian art-house director who is celebrated in some corners and reviled in others for his bleak films about the worst aspects of human nature, which are often tinged with political and social commentary. From Cache, an ambiguous thriller that explores themes of colonialism and guilt, to the sadistic Funny Games, which holds viewers accountable for their own capacity to enjoy extreme violence, Haneke’s films are meant to provoke. Amour is recognizably part of this tradition, yet it also offers something more warm than usual in its story of two genuinely good people united in love.
That does not mean that Amour is an easy watch. Haneke refuses to spare viewers the unpleasant details of Anne’s decline, as she becomes unable to eat or go to the bathroom without assistance and as she loses control over her ability to speak. Nor does Haneke offer much respite from the claustrophobic interiors of the couple’s apartment. His shots are patient, frequently lingering in a static position for several minutes and allowing the audience to take in all the details. Such an approach is slow, of course, but it is necessarily slow, modeled on the rhythms of the couple’s life and allowing the viewer to reflect on what they are seeing. Throughout the movie, Haneke’s mastery of cinematic staging, editing rhythms and subtle sound design is evident in his depiction of the couple’s insular world.
What keeps Amour from being merely clinical and depressing is the human element, provided by Trintignant and Riva. These two actors are established icons of French cinema, with careers spanning back to the 1950s. Their lifetime of experience is evident in the subtleties of their performances and the effortlessly believable rapport they establish as husband and wife—both actors convey so much emotion from the slightest gestures and looks. Yet the script never makes them saints—Georges and Anne’s sense of anger and frustration are just as vividly portrayed.
Ultimately, Amour is such a harrowing film to watch because it touches so powerfully on fundamental elements of the human experience that we would rather not confront. Topics such as suffering, death, and aging, especially when presented as starkly and brutally as they are here, are not likely to bring in droves to the movie theater. But they are undeniably a part of life, and Haneke’s commitment to depicting such themes with clear-sighted honesty is admirable. Amour is not comforting, it is all too often devastatingly sad, yet it is also upliftingly beautiful. It’s a paradox—just like life, and love, itself.