Friday, August 23, 2013

Amour: Real Love

Austria/France/Germany, 2012
Written and directed by Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke can be a difficult director to like. His work is challenging, often provocative, and occasionally confrontational to the point of feeling like a lecture. But Amour, which won Haneke his second Palme D'Or at Cannes, might be his most tender and accessible work yet. It's not all light and rainbows, by any means, but the film is less concerned with audience-baiting and social problems, and more interested in painting an intimate, unsentimental portrait of what it means to follow the standard vows "in sickness and in health [...] 'til death do us part" to their logical conclusion. It is a love story, as the title suggests, but one set in neither the demographic nor the mode of Hollywood romance, where love is a product to sell or a quirk looking for its complement. This is the maturity of love, when the word itself becomes synonymous with coexistence, commitment, and mutual responsibility. This love hurts, but in a very different way than the songs tell us.

We begin at the end, as a bunch of emergency workers break into an opulent Paris apartment to find a slowly-mummifying dead woman (Emmanuelle Riva), surrounded by flowers on a bed in a sealed-up room. This is as grotesque as the film gets, despite the ample opportunity the subject matter provides, which shows us that Haneke is after neither body horror or revulsion, but something deeper. We then flash back, not to the beginning, but to the beginning of the end. The woman, Anne, is alive and well, attending the concert of one of her former piano students with her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). They return home to their apartment to find their door damaged from an attempted break-in, a symbol, perhaps, of the other unwelcome intruder about to challenge their domestic haven. For the remainder of the film, we rarely stray from the apartment, and Haneke efficiently maps the couple's relationship to this physical space and each other. He frames them in static long shots that reveal these interrelations through their quotidian tasks and habitual movements, movements soon interrupted by Anne's sudden illness.

At breakfast, Anne seems to zone out, staring blankly at Georges and not responding. When she snaps back, she has no memory of the event, and has lost control over her right side. It's a stroke. Surgery fails, and now Anne is confined to a wheelchair. She makes him promise not to put her back into the hospital, and he tries to deliver, despite the strain on himself and pressure from the couple's distant daughter (Isabelle Huppert). From here, the film centers on Georges's struggle to maintain some semblance of a normal, independent life for him and his wife in the face of her disability and his own advanced years. Just as before, Haneke focuses on the daily tasks—eating, bathing, recreation—and shows how difficult and burdensome they've become, but also how necessary it is for Georges to feel like he is fighting—especially when Anne no longer wants to. That, in a nutshell, is Amour's version of love: unglamorous, perseverent, and ultimately self-sacrificing.

Haneke is a master, and his control over the entirety of the mise-en-scène is astounding. There is no waste, and little fat to be trimmed from Amour's 127-minute running time; every frame, every musical cue, and every word contributes to the overall effect. Throughout, Darius Khondji's cinematography is beautiful, yet equally cold, static, and precise. The detached sense of observation that so often feels clinical in Haneke's work here simply feels honest and matter-of-fact, and if there's any ironic haughtiness of the "How do you like your precious 'love' now?" variety, as some have implied, I didn't see it. The film's use of music, integral to the leads' profession, also serves to underscore and manipulate our emotions, especially as it becomes one more piece of Anne that the stroke takes away.

While Haneke's craftsmanship dominates the film's look and feel, it's the actors that form Amour's heart. Riva became the oldest Best Actress nominee in Academy history, and it's well deserved. She delivers a performance of rare bravery, looking into the abyss of age and infirmity with confidence. Her character's pugnacious spunk makes her subsequent slide into depression and near-helplessness all the more tragic by comparison. Somewhat overlooked is Trintignant, as the wounded, occasionally frustrated, but ultimately faithful Georges. Together the two, surely among the greats of classic French cinema, make us wonder why there are so few good roles for older actors. Their performances are about more than the credible portrayal of debilitating illness or the ravages and indignities of age. They are about finding the humanity of the people beneath the symptoms, a humanity the world all too readily strips away from seniors.

Amour is a film of rare, remarkable power, a film that speaks to us without pandering. It shows us a reality often absent from the screen without patronizing or objectifying those it depicts. It is a story to which we can all relate, because it is a story most of us will experience, whether through our grandparents, parents, spouses or ourselves. In many ways, it is the best-case scenario: A long life, spent in the contented company of one who loves us more than they love themselves, and who will care for us even after time robs us of our autonomy. Amour could scarcely be called pleasant, and while it is not difficult to understand, neither is it easy to watch. But you should, because for maybe the first time in Haneke's career, all of the difficult moments are necessary for the genuine emotional payoff they create. Amour's first scene shows us where we're going to end up, so in a sense, the worst is over before it begins. The balance of the film then takes us through the darkness and into the light.

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