AMOUR (2012, Austria)

by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
My Rating: 9/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 93% Certified Fresh

PLOT: Georges and Anne have known a lifetime of love within their intimate marriage. Though their bond has survived the test of time, it’s about to meet its greatest challenge.

I’ve only seen three films by famed German director Michael Haneke.  The first was Caché (2005), which some may consider maddening, but which I think is a masterpiece of open-ended storytelling designed specifically to provoke arguments at the nearest Starbucks after the movie is over.  The second was The White Ribbon (2009), a pre-World War I fable about what happens when children give in to their tribal appetites.  I thought it was well made but a little too sedate, but it also won an unheard-of FOUR awards at Cannes that year, so what do I know.  (One day I’ll watch Funny Games [1997], but today is not that day.  Tomorrow is not looking good, either.)

Last night, I finished watching Amour, Haneke’s 2012 film that won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars that year, and the Golden Palm at Cannes.  After seeing three of his films, the one thing I can say about Haneke as a director is that he is apparently a perfectionist, who edits and composes shots as well as Kubrick, and that his subject matter is all over the place…also like Kubrick.  He also does not shy away from shocking the audience by lulling them into a kind of complacency before presenting them with a moment of violence or revelation.  Like Hitchcock, he plays the audience like a grand piano.

Amour tells the story of an octogenarian couple, Georges and Anne, still very much in love with each other.  They are retired music teachers living a quiet life of piano concerts, meals at the kitchen table, and reading the newspaper.  Georges might be a little more straightforward or curt than Anne, but they clearly know each other’s rhythms.  The style of the film clearly indicates their routines with a brilliant economy of editing and camerawork, not to mention the subtle performances from the two main actors.

One day, something happens at the breakfast table.  Anne and Georges are having a conversation over a boiled egg when Anne simply stops and stares into space.  Unable to get a response, even after dabbing a wet towel on her face, Georges prepares to fetch the doctor.  Suddenly Anne snaps out of her trance and wonders where Georges is going.  When he tries to explain what’s happened, she gets confused and angry with him for torturing her.  But when she tries to pour herself a cup of coffee, the coffee goes everywhere except in the cup, and suddenly her right hand seems to be trembling…

At this point, in years past, I would have probably turned this movie off, or returned it to Blockbuster without finishing it.  I can hear my inner monologue now: “Why do I need to watch an ultra-depressing movie about someone who’s dying?  I mean, I can hope that it has a life-affirming message at the end like Philadelphia or Angels in America, but this is a foreign film that won awards at the Oscars AND at Cannes, so chances are it’s going to end on a down note.  Who needs it, am I right?”

Well, Amour may not have the kind of crowd-pleasing finale one might hope for, but it is nevertheless engrossing, quietly devastating, and even a little terrifying.

…you can’t see it, but I’m very frustrated right now.  I’m trying to figure out how to write the rest of this column and it’s eluding me.

With a movie like this, an analysis of its technical prowess seems irrelevant.  I learn from the extras on the Blu ray that the couple’s apartment was constructed entirely on a set with a big green-screen backdrop.  Haneke wrote the script with his parents’ apartment in mind, so it seemed appropriate to just recreate it on a soundstage.  How does this contribute to the story?  I honestly don’t know.  I would imagine it enabled the filmmakers to control every aspect of lighting so that anything involving scenery through the windows felt as if it was real.  So I guess there’s that.

My problem is that this movie is intended very specifically to make you empathize with the characters.  It does this job very well.  It was a pleasure to watch a great film with great characters in the hands of a great director.  But if I’m going to talk about how the movie made me feel…I guess I must be honest and say it didn’t exactly make me feel good.  It didn’t make me feel bad, exactly, just really, really sad.

There is a kind of sadness I can feel at certain kinds of films (The Remains of the Day and Requiem for a Dream come to mind) where the endings are so mind-blowingly sad, and so unexpected, there is a kind of emotional exhilaration that accompanies the sadness.  I am so wrapped up in the story I have left real life behind, but after the movie is over, I am back in the real world, and I am stoked to tell someone about how great the movie is, despite its dark material.

With Amour, though, when the end of the film arrives, and I’m back in the real world…I still felt like I was in the movie.  Because, in a way, the movie is about me.  About all of us.  One day, I will (finally) grow old and eventually die.  Watching the scenes where Georges stares into Anne’s eyes as her body functions waste away and he reluctantly hires a nurse who is stronger than he is because Anne has lost the use of her right side and must be carried out of the wheelchair to be bathed?  Listening to the conversation when Anne says point blank that she sees no point in going on living if she’s going to be such a burden?  Watching Anne’s face when the nurse turns her in her bed to demonstrate to Georges how to put on her diaper?

Watching these scenes, I wondered how I would feel myself if I were to succumb to something similar.  I tell myself I would want to live.  There’s a line in Full Metal Jacket: “The dead know only one thing.  It is better to be alive.”  But what if I got as sick as Anne does?  What if I lost the power of speech?  What if I lost the ability to type with both hands, as I’m doing right now?

I’m not even sure that is the point of the movie, to make me reflect on my own mortality.  It’s said that Haneke made this movie to honor his aunt who suffered a degenerative disease as Anne does.  The title of the movie is Amour, so maybe I should be writing about the great love between Georges and Anne.  But whenever I think about that aspect of the film, I fall back into thinking about myself again.  It’s a vicious cycle, and I’m not sure how to break it.

I’m making this movie sound depressing to the nth degree.  I suppose it is, by default, but it is still definitely worth your while to watch.  It is so well made and so thought-provoking.  It deserves to be seen and discussed, ideally with someone you love.  I don’t agree with every decision made by the characters in this film.  But I understand why they were made, so I do not judge them.  One day, I will get old, and I will think back to this movie and say to myself, “Now I really know how they feel.”

P.S.  The only reason I don’t rate this movie 10/10 is because there’s a brief prologue involving an empty apartment and a bedroom with a single occupant that, to me, telegraphed a key moment that I saw coming a mile away as the scene unfolded.  But that’s just me.

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