Austrian director Michael Haneke has become notorious over the years for his clinical, detached style of directing, which he often employs while telling stories that evoke a visceral, often intensely negative reaction in viewers. Whether it be the brutal torture of a family in his infamous "Funny Games" or the portrait of mentally unstable, masochistic music professor in "The Piano Teacher," Haneke delights (some might say sadistically) in provoking his audience and upending expectations. He presents the most disturbing aspects of human behavior, presumably in the service of making a larger point about society as a whole, though more often it appears that he just likes getting a rise out of people.
It's tempting to say that he's up to his old tricks once again with his latest film, "Amour." And maybe he is, as he chronicles the slow, undignified death of a sweet, old woman in grueling detail. But despite the unpleasant subject matter, "Amour," winner of the Palm d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival and now a multiple Academy Award nominee, emerges as one of the most moving and emotional cinematic experiences of the year.
Veterans of the French New Wave, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant play Anne and Georges, two retired music teachers, now in their 80s. They've obviously had a long, happy life together, and they're still very much in love. They lead a quiet existence, filling their time with a shared passion for art and culture. But one morning over breakfast, Anne suddenly goes catatonic, freezing in mid-conversation, the light suddenly gone from her eyes. Georges panics, with good reason, but practically before he has a chance to act, his wife returns to him with no memory of what transpired. Concerned, they see a doctor, and learn that Anne has a blocked carotid artery that requires surgery. The diagnosis is only the first signal of her declining health and, when the surgery leaves half of her body paralyzed, it's clear that Georges and Anne are facing the beginning of the end.
Haneke has insisted in interviews that his intentions with "Amour" are sincere, explaining that he based the events of the film around his own personal experiences with an aunt who had become quite ill and suffered greatly. I'm choosing to take him at his word, but others might not be convinced. There's certainly enough evidence to support the contrary. The first few minutes of the film lend themselves rather easily to the more cynical interpretation. The opening credits unfold in complete silence, punctuated at their end by policeman violently smashing open the door to the couple's apartment, where they find Anne's lifeless body neatly laid out upon the bed (it's over this image that the film's title, "Love," appears). This is followed immediately by the flashback that makes up the bulk of the film, beginning with a curious two-minute shot, taken from the stage at a classical music concert we never actually see, with the camera aimed out at the audience as they peer right back at us through the darkness of the theater.
But it's always a trap to play the game of inferring a director's hidden intentions with a film, pretending to know without a doubt exactly what message they're trying to send. In the end, what matters is the meaning that the audience finds in the film. Here, Haneke's distanced viewpoint doesn't feel detached, so much as he's trusting the subject matter to speak for itself. He takes his time, using long, quiet takes that allow scenes to unfold slowly (save for one, vividly staged nightmare sequence). We don't need extreme close-ups on Riva or Trintignant's pain to feel empathy. Most of us have lived through, or been close to someone who's lived through events similar to these, and Haneke trusts his audience enough to not ladle on the sentimentality.
Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant each play their roles with all the warmth and humanity that they require; they're each legends for a reason. Riva has been getting the lion's share of the awards season attention, but it's Trintignant's performance as devoted husband Georges that is the true soul of the film.
"Amour" is often difficult to watch, and it takes a skilled director to create a film of such immense sadness and not make it feel like a soul-crushing ordeal to sit through. Instead the film has a vitality and respect for life coursing through its veins, and that's largely due to the incredible performances Haneke is able to get from his actors. It's a film that understands the emotional and physical demand that it takes to care for someone, in sickness and in health. It could be seen as its own sort of horror film, one which documents, in clear-eyed detail, our worst fears and an inescapable part of life that most of us would rather not think about. But ultimately it's a testament to what it really means to love someone for a lifetime.