Amour (2012, Michael Haneke)
Our visions of an erratic old age have only been exacerbated by the movies’ interpretations of it — films like Sarah Polley’s Away from Her and this one, by resident Funny Games provocateur Michael Haneke, have none of the sentimental distance of Umberto D or Wild Strawberries. In their uncompromising portrait of ailing and dying, these films render private matters into a forum for our voyeuristic interest and, more pertinently, our darkest fears. The stars of Haneke’s effort, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, give two of the most haunting performances in any modern film, setting fire underneath the tale — perhaps more poem than plot — of a woman’s mental deterioration and its effect on her marriage. Unfortunately, the movie is troubling in its maudlin gawking at its characters’ misfortune, which might be genuinely tragic if not for a few crucial errors, and in the end feels surprisingly cold and rote.
In casting, atmosphere and even sheer cultivating of empathy, Haneke does so much right with Amour, which in numerous ways is essentially a horror film, but he’s simply not the best director for it — he has no emotional reach, little feeling for his characters, and too much of an attraction to tiresome literary conceit. The painfully straight-faced symbolism that suddenly invades this intentionally drab, banal narrative of stroke spiraling down into death is incongruous and unwelcome; a pigeon in the house isn’t much better than a horse representing “freedom” in a rock video. But as much as one can argue that Haneke’s problem here is pretension, it feels faintly absurd — nothing happens in Amour except the final, sad act of an apparently good marriage, ending in despair or death as they all must. It’s just a testament to the way that even an inherently simple narrative can fuck up its own elegance with unneeded dross.
The stabs of insight Haneke achieves are mostly in regard to the question of day-to-day matters about caring for a loved one, especially one’s romantic partner, but he only fleetingly examines these issues in their actual depth. One gets the sickening feeling that his impression of a man making the best of a terrible situation and a woman giving up because she simply must is that they’re all just more pawns for him to play with. His thesis is no more complex than something hopeless Leonard Cohen spit out in two lines in 1971: “They’ll never reach the moon, at least not the one that we’re after / it’s floating broken on the open sea, and it carries no survivors.” Of course Cohen noted that there were more songs to sing even though they all must grow “old and bitter,” but Haneke is too addicted to his own lazy bleakness to show us anything that we don’t already know by the time we read a one-line synopsis of Amour.
There is beauty in the film, undoubtedly. Haneke’s greatest idea here is his rendering of Mr. and Mrs. Laurent as both retired music teachers, giving the story a wonderful texture of structured sound and mournful piano, and for the evening before Anne’s debilitating silent stroke to be a happy one spent hearing the work of one of her old students performed. Though we seldom see it meaningfully eluciated save in small, rather superficial ways, Georges’ obvious love for his wife is moving — but that illness and unease in your chest when this ends may not be because it’s a horribly observant teller of truths.
It’s not just that the hokey self-cloaked fantasy of an afterlife reunion or hallucination at the tail end (a sickeningly simplistic Tree of Life by way of Bed and Board reprise) cheapens it, though it does. So does the abrupt silliness of Georges’ decisive action, which — while quietly justified earlier in the film when Anne is still playing wheelchair games and maintaining conversations — is a tellingly protracted moment in a film that has an oft-repeated habit of looking away when things hurt. We’ve read and seen so much in recent years of how artificially extended lives are painful and empty ones, but Georges’ behavior of concealing his wife’s state and her death from everyone is nevertheless patently eccentric and disturbing — and out of place in a film that doesn’t permit us to know him well enough to truly empathize. Haneke’s (terrible) argument is that this is the sort of film in which back story and outside characterization shouldn’t matter, because everything we need to know about these people is wrapped up in this specific situation — but this isn’t Gravity or Psycho. It’s a film about someone losing their identity, and yet we’re not permitted the context of seeing her as anything but a disembodied movie figure.
In the end, though, the problem is simply that Amour isn’t a particularly compelling or daring movie. If anything, it’s rather obvious — and makes plays at being harsh, unrelenting and claustrophobic but actually cops out at every turn. It averts its glances at key moments — there was much talk about graphic scenes of Anne being cleaned by a nurse, which seem to have existed primarily in the minds of viewers — and only really shows us reactions (Georges’, almost always) to what’s happening; Haneke doesn’t seem to care as much for his characters as the actors do, with the result that we barely know them before their lives fall apart. That keeps us at a clinical distance — precisely where he wants us. (It doesn’t help that even when he’s attempting to illustrate the routine pleasures of the couple’s regular life, Haneke’s frame seems inexplicably imbued with mundane dread.)
The only interest here seems to have been the situation itself: to display the end of life, the act of prolonged heartbreak that consists of one watching one’s spouse slowly die. A dreadful thing, but its central attitude of “this is everyone, this is how death overtakes us” runs past the universal and into the trite — especially because Amour uses this supposed even-handed “typical” nature to excuse characters who hold no unique traits beyond their shared former career. Everyone’s death is equally tragic, sure, but also markedly different from anyone else’s, and more significantly private (lonely?) than even this film is able to suggest. Haneke might want to present “realism,” but what he really gives us is a fitfully touching and insightful but deeply artificial stage play about ciphers. Pixar’s Up felt more real, and cut me deeper.