You know, I’m not sure about Michael Haneke. Popular opinion will cast him as one of the most important directors working today, a renegade intent on upsetting the status quo whose genius lies in his ability to get under people’s skin and really question the roots of the violence that seems so deeply ingrained in modern society. More often than not, though, I find him shrill and more than a little crass. He’s made some interesting films, in particular Hidden and Code Unknown, but at his worst, he wags his finger like a sneering headmaster, sometimes even chastising his audience for wanting to watch the film he’s made.
Amour is a marked departure for him, then, as there is no one to blame for what transpires between its elderly couple facing their mortality beyond the fragility of human life. Although the word is never uttered, Amour is, as the title suggests, a film about love and how it ages, how its roots get set in deep and what happens when that inevitably must end. It’s much smaller in scale than many of the big arthouse titles of the year, set almost entirely in one Parisian apartment and starring only a handful of actors beyond the central couple, but in it’s own way it’s as grand a cinematic statement as they come, standing alongside Anderson and Carax as one of the year’s defining films.
Jean-Louis Tringtignant and Emmanuelle Riva play the couple at the film’s centre with a lived-in, contented intimacy that at first is only barely shaken by her suffering a stroke. She’s left paralysed on her left side, leaving her to suffer the indignities of not being able to clean herself or cut her own food or to get around. These scenes are played with realistic tenderness, her stubbornness and frustration balanced by his patience and compassion. However, after she suffers a second stroke that leaves her unable to move or speak, the film asks whether living is really worth it when one’s love for another only makes you both more miserable.
It’s a daring approach to take for such an emotive subject, and Haneke has gone to great lengths not to make a tearjeaker. He applies alienating techniques all over the shop, most noticeably cutting between scenes abruptly so we’re never given the time to let our emotions breathe, as well as cutting out certain key moments entirely. Early on in the film, Trigtignant talks about a time when he wept more at the memory of a film than he did when he actually saw it, and it seems like this was Haneke’s intention with Amour – in retrospect, certain moments seem intensely moving, but the experience of actually watching it is hard and grueling and, even at its most heartbreaking, cold. It’s a very Haneke approach to take and for all its difficulty it’s most definitely the right one. Such sensitive topics are more often than not reduced to cliché and platitudes, and by keeping his distance from the intensity of the couple’s shared grief he depicts it was a refreshing frankness.
That’s not to say Haneke’s direction is not without grace. He takes great care to depict the indignities of Riva’s condition without sacrificing it, and certain choices he makes are just beautiful- I was particularly struck by how when Trigtignant holds her to help her into her chair he does so as though they are dancing. The scene in which she suffers her first stroke is Haneke at his most sensitive, a perfectly pitched sequence in which is tense and tragic without ever seeming dramatic or unrealistic. It’s exactly how such everyday tragedies evolve in reality, where there are no thrilling dashes through A&E or breathless confessions and tearful embraces – it’s simply quiet, and confusing, and scary.
It’s a shame, then, that he doesn’t maintain such subtlety throughout. Towards the end, there’s an entirely-too-symbolic pigeon and the ending takes a disappointing turn into sensationalism. However, that doesn’t prevent it from being one of the finest films of the year, and certainly the finest film Haneke has ever made. In Amour’s central couple we can see, for the first time, that Haneke is capable of grace, and an understanding that when it comes to such death, no one is at fault. It may be the boldest statement he’s made to date, and he’s done it without ever raising his voice.