Amour is a difficult film to like. During my viewing, at least two couples left the theatre before the credits never to return. It’s possible they found themselves on an unexpected side of love, the true end of the fairy tale, when they had been hoping for something more along the lines of Amelie. Whatever the case was for them, this gut wrenching examination of what it really means to love and die should absolutely be sat through by anyone with an interest in cinema. The director, Michael Haneke, is in top form and while he has not shifted from his signature austere style one iota, he has produced a devastating argument for its effectiveness.
In a powerful cold open, Haneke removes all suspense from the film and also sucks the air out of the theatre. The woman in the featured octogenarian couple is found dead on her bed, and the next two hours will not focus on some mystery to be solved or a redemptive arc to be completed. Instead for the most part we will be watching Emanuelle Riva’s slow descent after suffering a stroke to this opening point, while being cared for by her husband. While that sounds like just the sort of one note foreign film most of us would avoid, Haneke’s work is a complex meditation that is spiced by his mastery with the language of cinema. The opening credits are stark white text upon a black background which is also the dark of the apartment. This black screen is abruptly shattered as firefighters kick in the door the camera is framed on. Upon the finding of the body there is a sudden smash cut to the white on black Amore title card. The next two minutes consists of staring at another theatre audience mirrored across from us. The elements at play here include the light and dark juxtaposition, the observation of someone’s living space by a stranger, and the manipulation of expectations with the body and the title card. How each of these elements further the themes of the film is worthy of discussion. This is the joy of a Haneke film. Each shot is just brimming with information. If you are game for it, there are a lot of ideas to extract from the composition of this film. More so even than in his previous Palm d’Or winner The White Ribbon, these ideas are clearly and confidently executed.
Most of the film takes place within a single apartment in some non-descript location in France. In most directors hands this would lead to a “box episode” feel where the novelty comes from the characters being forced to interact with each other. Haneke is instead using the borders of the apartments as sophisticated metaphorical boundaries for the lives of its inhabitants. The few times that something occurs outside the apartment or even just opening of a window are very important and tonally different from the rest of the film. There is a scene in which the husband, Georges, is passively deflecting the impotent angst of his daughter. She desperately wants to make the right choices and save her mother, in a thinly veiled effort to keep control of her life, control which we are subtly told eludes her in both her professional and personal life. Georges rebuffs her because he understands the inevitable is going to happen and it is outside of control, and in a way the dying wife and her husband have begun to move beyond the worries of life. Georges has been taking care of his suffering wife and respecting her wishes day by day as best he can in the stark white washed apartment, filled with the browns of the life of things they’ve acquired. Suddenly his daughter opens the window in the study, and we can see the French cityscape for the first time, an hour in. It is abrupt localization, and it represents the social connected life that the daughter is still engaged in and the older couple is losing touch with. This juxtaposition of the worries and expectations we have in youth versus in age is one of the central themes of the film and with one open window it is presented to us visually.
While the thematic density of the writing and shot composition is the main attraction of the film, the other elements all serve dutifully. Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant are excellent leads, each conveying wisdom and vulnerability in believable ways. In particular, as Riva’s character becomes increasingly disabled, each of them is challenged immensely to convey the infirmities, love, and repulsion they each feel without the crutch of launching into soliloquies or breaking furniture. Georges carries an impossible load and we can see it on every line of Trintignants face. The music is unsurprisingly a classical piano infused aria. Shades of The Piano Teacher linger around the family’s involvement with concert halls. The plotting is also very effective, specializing in subverting expectations. There isn’t much hand holding or long holds on rooms of people crying. The film focuses on what’s going on under the surface and the characters and actions adroitly reveal this.
In the end this movie is still two hours of watching someone die. What’s amazing is that anyone could take that material and elevate it beyond snuff and melodrama into a realistic portrayal that is philosophical without descending into white light epiphanies. I really did love this film and at the same time I cannot rewatch it again anytime soon. Filled with both pain and ardor, I found it extremely rewarding. Amour is an execellent choice if you are interested in seeing what film has to offer as an art form.