Michael Haneke’s Amour is a difficult film to sit through. The story of an elderly French couple dealing with illness and the specter of death, Amour stares unblinkingly at the progressive failure of the body and the mind. Knowing the general thrust of the film before I arrived at the theater, I expected to be moved to tears by the film. Turns out the waterworks never started to flow — largely because Amour inspires horror rather than sadness.
The film is the work of writer/director Michael Haneke (Caché, Funny Games), a filmmaker known for making challenging (some would say unbearable) movies. Love him or hate him, there’s no debating that Haneke is a fabulous visual storyteller. Amour is a movie that fans of filmmaking will find compelling, as Haneke’s directorial fingerprints are all over the frame. For non-film-technique obsessives, however, this will be an exercise in masochism.
Take the first shot: An apartment door is smashed open by police, and the people lurking nearby pinch their noses to fend off the smell. As the camera tracks through the apartment we notice things that may or may not be important (Why was the door taped shut in addition to locked? Why is that window open?) before the big reveal: There’s a dead body in a bed, laid out as if at a funeral. What happened here?
Following this prologue, Amour begins in earnest. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are happily married retired music teachers living in Paris and attending a concert at a theater on Champs-Élysées. Before they are introduced to the viewer, Haneke allows his camera to linger on a wide shot of the capacity crowd (including Georges and Anne, though I didn’t realize it at first) waiting for the show to start. It’s a conspicuous shot — I didn’t clock it, but I’ll bet it lasts at least a full minute before cutting — one that I think is meant to impart that, though the story will be about two specific people, it could (and will eventually be) about any and all of us.
The concert is something of a last hurrah for the couple, as Anne’s health starts to deteriorate soon after. A doctor is called after Anne seems to go catatonic one morning while at breakfast (she snaps back to life after a moment), and it’s decided she needs a surgery that has only a 5 percent chance of complications. Anne finds herself on the wrong side of the odds, however, and must deal with post-op paralysis of half her body.
The couple decides that Georges will take care of his wife (she begs him never to bring her back to a hospital), though this proves more and more difficult over time. Soon nurses are hired, and the pair’s daughter (Isabelle Huppert) starts making demands on Georges that he does not want to hear or consider. All the while, Anne continues her downward spiral and George becomes more and more despondent over his ailing wife.
Though it’s clear from the start where Amour is going, it still contains surprises great and gruesome, including a conclusion that is at once maddening and cathartic — maddening because it’s opaque and perhaps metaphysical (I’m still not exactly sure what happens in the last two minutes); cathartic because this movie is torture to watch and it’s finally over.
That said, Amour is also a technical triumph. The performances by Trintignant and Riva, both living legends in France, are magnificent and serve as career-cappers. (Riva received a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nomination for her disturbing performance as Anne.) Haneke’s direction is often brilliant, as is the editing, sound design, etc. But who the hell actually wants to watch this movie, besides film students or the morbidly depressed?
I’m not giving Amour a star rating because it would be irrelevant. Do I think it’s a good movie? Yes. A great one? Not so fast. Beyond that, the decision of whether or not to see this film rests with you. Does my description make you want to buy a ticket? If so, enjoy. But remember: Haneke provides no easy outs or triumph of the human spirit. In Haneke’s world, love is often having to do the unthinkable, and death is awful and ugly and grim. The end.