As meticulously controlled as any film he has ever made, Michael Haneke’s Amour introduces an element of heart that has never been so prominent in any of the austere Austrian’s work. A director known for films that deal with dark and unpleasant facets of humanity, Haneke has turned his keen eye on something new with his examination of old age and death. In doing so, he has crafted an emotionally wrenching, deeply human film that never feels exploitative. Instead, it is honest, unflinching, devastating, and an immensely deserving candidate for this year’s Palme D’Or.
Opening with a brief look at the end of the story, Haneke then takes us back to the beginning. In a long shot looking out from a stage into an audience, a couple (who we don’t see distinctly until the next shot) of music professors watch a performance. We next see the pair – Georges (Jean Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) – returning home, where they discover that someone may have tried to break into their apartment. This is but our introduction to the long-married couple. Where things start moving is the following afternoon, when, over a meal, Anne has a small stroke.
And it’s this small incident, rendered with beautiful simplicity and respect by Haneke, that sets off Anne’s general decline in health. From there Haneke merely observes said decline. Yet the director’s typically cold tone manages to find painfully heartfelt emotion in the performances, which are the true core of the film. As Georges, Trintignant brings the toughened quality of someone who believes he always knows what’s best for his wife, and feels offended when people question his judgment. Among his questioners is his daughter Eva (the wonderful Isabelle Huppert), who appears only a few times, caring yet too caught up in her own life to be there full time.
This leaves the film down to Georges and Anne, and both performers deliver top tier work. Riva in particular deserves credit for never letting her character’s decline in health become a performance gimmick. This isn’t a case of a character’s disability hindering the performance. Because we get to see Anne before her health severely declines, we have a sense of the woman we’re watching fade away. She and Trintignant play off of each other with the natural chemistry one would expect of a couple who have been married for decades. Isabelle Huppert’s contributions are welcome as well. The actress previously turned in a stunning performance in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2002), and this second collaboration shows them two be a strong match, even though she’s nowhere near the lead this time around.
Outside of the performances, Amour remains a richly realized, elegant film. Haneke could have used certain elements – the need, at one stage, for Georges to change Anne’s diaper – for cheap exploitation, with gross-out moments to drive home the degrading nature of Anne’s position. He doesn’t. A nurse establishes the diaper, and in one brief scene George helps Anne pull up her pants after using the toilet, but Haneke refrains from showing us anything. The emotions running through Amour’s veins are painful enough, and as such Haneke keeps the treatment of the subject matter restrained. In previous films, Haneke’s cool control of the frame has often been utilized to provide unexpected jolts for the audience (a certain scene in Cache comes to mind). Here, he still gives us a jolt, but adds to his arsenal the ability to pull out painfully moving moments without shamelessly tugging on heartstrings. One that stands out involves Georges watching Anne playing the piano, only for the film to reveal that he’s merely listening to a recording while looking at the instrument, remembering his wife as she was before her stroke. The scene is simple in execution, and stands as a testament to Haneke’s powers as a writer and director when it comes to such difficult subject matter.
Some may find the film to be dull or bland, but even among those who haven’t experienced what the film presents, I suspect there will be many who somehow connect to the material. This is the sort of film that you won’t want to rush to see again, if only because its piercing honesty is so powerful on the first go-round. Amour is both Haneke doing what he does best, and Haneke branching off and doing something new. It is a quietly devastating film, filled with restrained, exemplary filmmaking, one that tackles a part of life that is too often ignored on the big screen. And even though its subject matter keeps it from being traditionally enjoyable, it does provide its own pleasure. That pleasure comes from watching a master director tackle a difficult topic with such elegance and restraint, while still injecting an appropriate sense of heart into it all. Will I rush to see Amour again upon its American release (which will likely be late 2012 or early 2013)? No. What I’ll do is remember what a powerful experience it was to behold. That will be enough to sustain me until I can finally set eyes on it again.