Michael Haneke’s “Amour” may come as a bit of a shock to audiences who associate him with the creepy “Caché” and the virulently sadistic “Funny Games,” which, not content to have perpetrated once, he actually remade.
I’m not altogether convinced, though, that the Haneke who made “Amour” is a chastened soul. This film about an aged Parisian couple has received wide acclaim – Cannes Palme d’Or, best foreign film from the New York Film Critics Circle (“Zero Dark Thirty” won Best Picture), and Best Film from the Los Angeles Flm Critics Association. I like it more than any other Haneke film I’ve seen, but it still left me discomfited in ways I don’t think he intended. And Haneke is, if nothing else, a very intentional director. He controls what we see with a jeweler’s eye.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are music teachers who have been happily married for more than 60 years. Their spacious apartment, filled with books and music and a large piano, is a shrine to cultural entitlement.
But our first glimpse of its interior is in the opening scene in which police break down the door and discover Anne’s corpse carefully laid out on her bed. From this prototypical Haneke moment, the film flashes back to the couple attending the concert of a former pupil and then proceeds to that apartment, where the rest of the film’s action takes place. As things progress, their sanctuary becomes less a refuge than a mausoleum.
This is because Anne, after returning from the hospital after suffering a stroke that leaves her partially paralyzed, makes Georges promise to never send her back there. As her condition deteriorates, he becomes ever more obsessively committed to that promise, to the dismay of their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), whose occasional drop-in visits are jangly eruptions amid the gloomy calm.
When he isn’t shooting Georges and Anne in extended, unwavering long shots, Haneke frames them in lingering close-ups. The effect is the same: a clinical, almost voyeuristic dispassion. Haneke emphasizes – overemphasizes -- the weary vacancy of Anne and the affrighted mask of Georges. There is a morbidity to his method. Compassion doesn’t turn him on; decay does.
And, marvelous though she is, Riva isn’t given a great deal of screen time before her character is rendered immobile and unresponsive. For Georges, in his increasing helplessness, Anne becomes something to react against – a great, soulful weight to be lifted. Subtly, inexorably, “Amour” moves from being a study of loss and aging into more deranged, Edgar Allan Poe territory. By focusing virtually his entire film on the isolation of this couple within that apartment, Haneke summons up a creeping claustrophobia. (He seems to be saying, "All that bourgeois art and culture won't save you.") We know, because of the way the film begins, where this is all heading. Georges’s despair is so tightly controlled that, after a while, we wait for something startling to break the longueurs. And sure enough, Haneke delivers one of his ghastly specialty numbers.
Because of its subject matter, and because of the actors, it’s impossible to watch this film without being moved. But a martinet is running the show. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language.)