Early notices from festival screenings described Austrian director Michael Haneke’s new film Amour as his most approachable, accessible, and “humanist.” There’s something distressing about the degree to which it was held up as a marked improvement from his previous work, as though there was something inherently wrong with his rigorously chilly indictments of the horrors of modern life that could only be remedied by a softening of method. Thankfully, it turns out that Amour has more in common with the director’s underrated and upsetting Funny Games (1997/2006) films and their appropriation of horror film techniques than it does with the comparatively milquetoast festival-bait of career-low The White Ribbon (2009).
Admittedly, the subject matter does read as somewhat subdued when skimming the logline — the love of an elderly married couple (former French superstars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) is tested as the wife suddenly succumbs to a life-threatening illness — but Haneke’s approach wrings from it perhaps the most distressing film of his career, a through-fingers-and-tears gaze into a (nearly) transcendence-free view of encroaching death. More horror film than drama, Amour equates death with body horror and brings a searing, when-is-it-going-to-end tension to the proceedings, resulting in the director’s most difficult watch to date.
After a crisp opening gives away the ending (she dies) and indulges in a bit of quick reflexive play (we watch a crowd watch an orchestral performance but never see the actual performance), the film moves swiftly from a sweetly charming moment of twilight-years flirtation to its first brush with the nightmares to come. Riva suffers a stroke at breakfast. The moment plays at once as a naturalistic, sensitive evocation of love and empathy tinged with the awkwardness of daily existence — getting a towel becomes an action, the faucet itself is a real story element — and as the first appearance of an unknowable, ruthless adversary; again, flickers of Funny Games and its goofy yet unnerving first encounter with its foppish white-clad killers.
Rendered in cold, precisely geometric framings reminiscent of a desaturated Douglas Sirk film, the film takes its power from its materialist approach, focusing on the physical, practical realities of illness, with long stretches devoted to the difficulty of Trintignant’s attempts to help his increasingly immobile wife with the mundane tasks of eating, drinking, and pissing. It must be noted that in one respect, early reports of the film were completely accurate: Trintignant and Riva give two of the most accomplished performances on screen this year, extracting heartrending power from their tiny movements about the claustrophobic apartment. Even after rendered incapable of speech halfway through the film, Riva remains a riveting presence, endlessly refocusing the film back onto the decay of her body. Concerns such as the economization of death in scenes involving caretakers or attempts by the couple’s daughter (Isabelle Huppert) to place Riva in a nursing home become intensely physical once grounded in Riva’s wrecked body and its impotent attempts at movement and speech.
But it is in Haneke’s handling of Trintignant’s character that the film finds its most subversive and brutal element, one that has been unfortunately overlooked in most discussions of the film. As the film progresses, a horrible misogyny begins to surface, and yet Tritignant’s love for Riva is never in doubt, and his most reprehensible or upsetting behavior is presented as an outpouring of that love. A point of reference here are the writings of Ingebord Bachmann, whose short story “Three Paths to the Lake” was adapted by Haneke for one of his early TV films. Through the lens of the early Austrian feminism which birthed Bachmann’s famous line, “Men and women should keep their best distance, have nothing to do with one another, until they both discover, out of confusion and disturbance, the dissonance of all relationships,” a far more upsetting image of love appears than the ultimately transcendent vision American critics seem dead-set on reading into the film. Most trenchant is a lyrical montage of Romance paintings set to swelling classical music that follows a scene of sudden, shocking, violence, the deep resonance of the images and music bleeding into the aftershocks of the sudden irruption of Trintignant’s unconscious. It’s one of Haneke’s most incisive provocations yet, even if its classicist beauty seems to offer a way out of its implications. If there is something that remains beautiful in the old couple’s love (and there is, desperately so), it remains tied to the broken, earth-bound, and irreducible quality of human society.
And yet it’s the film’s other lyrical breaks that nearly prove its undoing, redeemed only the clear-eyed purity of the images preceding them. A late-film sequence involving a bird trapped in the apartment moves worryingly away from his materialist approach and into metaphor and allusion, and a dream sequence involving an imagined robbery relies too much on overt formal misdirection, undermining his anti-subjective approach to little interesting effect. But ultimately, these moments hardly register in the face of the emotional toll the rest of the film exerts. These moments suggest a quavering attempt to appeal to something above the shit and mess of the long road down, but Haneke, with his customary inflexible resolve, can’t bring himself to fully commit, rigorously critiquing his characters until their final moments even as he allows us to feel the full weight of their all-too-commonplace, all-too-identifiable misery. Neither love nor romance conquers anything in Amour. Love dies. And that’s it.