Friday, January 08, 2021

Amour (2012)

Austria / France / Germany, 127 minutes
Director/writer: Michael Haneke
Photography: Darius Khondji
Music: Franz Schubert
Editors: Nadine Muse, Monika Willi
Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert

As the familiar old saw has it, gettin' old ain't for sissies—and neither is Amour, for all its trappings of genteel upper/middle-classmanship. Here we find a family whose bread and butter are meticulous piano recitals of Schubert. Director and writer Michael Haneke often seems to feel most comfortable inside such affluence, with a side order of intellectually cultivated, but perversely he also likes to afflict the comfortable in his pictures with undermining elements of horror: the home invasion thrill killers in Funny Games, a mysterious stalker in Cache (and a premise that rhymes with the first half of David Lynch's Lost Highway), those kids from Village of the Damned appearing as proto-Nazis in The White Ribbon. It seems a bit boorish to bring the implicit screams and gore world of horror even into the kindly realm of Grandma and Grandpa and the end of life, and it's true that Haneke might well be at his absolute coldest in this picture. But that doesn't mean he isn't telling the truth about life and death and aging.

I'm not as sure that stocking it all up with stars from the heroic age of the art film is the best idea. But certainly at least it brings a lot of raw talent and skill to the show along with the mediated distance of art film movie stars. Between them, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant appeared in Hiroshima mon amour (1959), My Night at Maud's (1969), and The Conformist (1970), as well as two pictures in Krysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy, plus many others (whole major careers!), though the only picture they made together previously was an obscure Italian portmanteau comedy from 1965, I Kill, You Kill. Isabelle Huppert as their daughter has of course been blazing her own later trail in cinema since the '80s. These players are dazzling in their abilities and courage, notably Riva (who died in 2017), and they were amply rewarded in praise. Amour won enough awards (over 80, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) that even a blind horse would have to squint looking in its direction. Inevitably all that also brings a certain amount of glamorous baggage that is somehow naggingly distracting when you actually go to watch the thing. (Spoilers ahead.)

But the story proceeds on brute force and the movie deserves all its accolades for exactly that. It starts on the last night of the previous life of Anne (Riva) and Georges (Trintignant), who are out to see a concert by one of Anne's proteges. They both teach piano but are now entering their 80s and have been mostly retired. The morning after the concert, Anne has a stroke that paralyzes her right side and puts her in a wheelchair. She already has a lifelong phobia of hospitals and medical treatments. Now she is on the slippery slope of the end of life. Georges simply attempts to cope with it. This is the point where we see a love story taken to natural extremes, one way to look at this picture and the source of the title. It being Haneke, that feels vaguely ironic somehow. We can see Georges means well and has a lifelong habit of stepping up to do the right thing to the best of his abilities. But he is in over his head here, as we can also see from the scenes of daily care: washing Anne's hair, cutting her food. Georges is not complaining. He's doing his best. But he's having stress nightmares at night and we can feel his frustration and despair. And hers even more. She hates this. Her prognosis is not good. Then she has a second stroke, and loses her speech entirely, with episodes of dementia.

Is it as dreary as it sounds? That might depend on your age and circumstances. It seems riveting and vividly alarming to me. There is a steady drumbeat of things getting worse all the time. Near the end Georges describes their daily routine to their daughter. It sounds arduous, tedious, and also "humiliating and sad for her and me," as he says. Anne can't speak. She only moans and calls ("hurts! ... hurts! ... hurts!"). We see Georges hit her once in frustration when she refuses to drink. She wants to die. It being Haneke, he starts playing her like a wounded beast. Then, it being Haneke, he ends their story on violence, as finally Georges murders Anne—euthanizes her might be the more accurate term. Her wishes have been clear.

The ending from there is a bit muddled or overdone, but at least it gives us some breathing room to get over the shock—not of the murder, as such, but more the rapid decline into the finality of death. The certainty of it. Amour takes on elements of a murder mystery or horror show at that point as Georges dresses the corpse and sets the scene. There is a sequence for open-ended interpretation involving Georges and a pigeon that flies into their foyer and must be assisted out again, which helpfully reminds us this has been an art film. And, finally, there is a poignant scene of flooding daylight where Anne is alive and healthy again and finishing up the dishes. They are going somewhere and leave the apartment together. Does that mean Georges died? Well, it seems likely, but that's another point for the discussion group with pie and coffee, as Haneke mercifully leads us out of this nightmare with these distancing strategies of movie stars and poetic ambiguities. The chill of the cold reality of our fragility and end in the grave nonetheless remains well beyond the silent credit roll.

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