“I love life. I love life to death.” – Emmanuelle Riva, in an interview with The Guardian
If nothing else, “Amour” proves that Michael Haneke and Emmanuelle Riva were destined to find each other. Haneke, in his relatively brief but weighty career, has made it something of a goal to emulate Doctor Vorzey’s lamp from Clouzot’s “Le Corbeau:” casting light and shadow in equal measure (or perhaps the latter in particular), starkly revealing the darkness that lies just outside the bounds of our everyday lives. Riva, meanwhile, has long been one of France’s most respected actors, having worked with some of the most thoughtful, philosophical directors in history (Jean-Pierre Melville, Alain Resnais, Krystof Kieslowski). More importantly, though, she exudes a natural warmth that Haneke cannot resist stripping down to the bone.
I have read elsewhere a comparison of “Amour” to the cinematic equivalent of telling a child that there is no Santa Claus. They’re not exactly wrong. In films like “The White Ribbon,” “Caché” and “The Piano Teacher,” Haneke has revelled in disillusionment, and his latest is no exception. But while “Amour” is in many ways as much a work of rude disenchantment as those previous films, it is also perhaps the least pessimistic. This is not a film that overtly and unrealistically manipulates events to bring out people’s worst qualities (see: “Funny Games”), but confronts the audience with simple, unwanted truths. The inevitability of aging and death are not exactly heartwarming topics, but Haneke can’t really be faulted just for bringing up the elephant in the room.
“Amour” wastes no time letting us know precisely where it is headed: we begin with a scene of firemen breaking down the door of a locked apartment to find the body of a dead elderly woman peacefully arranged on her bed. Her husband is nowhere to be seen. Haneke then immediately flashes back a ways, as Anne (Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) attend a recital by one of Anne’s former pupils (it seems to be a little in-joke for Haneke’s fans that the pleasant, warm Anne is a piano teacher, in stark contrast to Isabelle Huppert’s repressed version). The rest of the film, then, becomes a sad march towards the inexorable: at breakfast the next morning, Anne appears to suffer a minor stroke, and slowly but surely her body begins to break down on her.
The tragedy here is not one of abuse or deceit or hubris. Both Anne and Georges appear to be perfectly lovely people. What happens to them seems unfair; we want to offer our help, to object to their plight, but there is no one to object to. It’s just life. We will all, given time, decay and die in the same way, and little is to be done about that.
On the one hand, that simple sentiment is as depressing and nihilistic as anything Haneke has presented before. But there is something deeply touching about it as well, a kernel of optimism amidst the despair. At one point, Georges politely turns away the well-intended but not entirely ingenuous offers of assistance from the couple’s busy, self-involved daughter (Huppert, returning to Haneke’s fold). He tells her that it is not necessary or worth it for her to see the unflattering details of their everyday routine: the diaper changing, the assisted feeding, the awkwardness of moving about the apartment. Yet this is exactly what Haneke films. There is something beautifully affirming about the notion that yes, it IS worth it to see these details. This is life – and this is love.
Because love does, of course, hang over every frame of “Amour.” Georges’ love for Anne (and vice versa) is taken as a given. We do not need any flashbacks or grandiose speeches to justify his unquestioned devotion to her; we see it in Trintignant’s performance, in the subtle gestures and weary eyes that suggest a lifetime of intimacy. Riva is perhaps a touch more expressive, but her role is more demanding – she must convey the frustration and confusion of her character’s increasingly debilitated mind, often in complete silence. But Trintignant shoulders the burden of being the audience’s proxy. We weigh Georges’ every action against the thought of “what we would do” in his situation, and he bears that responsibility with eminent humanity, alternating between fear, ire, resolution and dignity.
Georges and Anne’s apartment ranks with the impossible theater of “Anna Karenina” and the meticulous Bishop household of “Moonrise Kingdom” as one of the most extraordinary cinematic spaces of the year. Like the couple that lives there, the apartment seems exceedingly agreeable, if not especially spectacular; and like them, it grows into something singular just from the time we spend in its company. I could tell you the exact layout of the place, and if pressed, probably even give a rough estimate of the square footage. But yet even from scene to scene it transforms, seeming bright and cozy in one moment and then cramped and claustrophobic the next.
When a lone pigeon flies in through a window one day, Georges shoos it back out; when that happens again near the end of the film, he catches it in a blanket and gently cradles the trapped creature. The apartment emerges as another metaphor for life itself – simultaneously liberating and limited. The pigeon, like Anne, like Georges, like each one of us, is a fleeting thing, and he cannot resist trying to hold on to it, if only for a minute.
That Haneke was nominated for a Best Director Oscar for this meticulous, delicate, sharp emotional jumble of a film is one of the Academy’s finer moments in recent memory. That it comes at the same time as a Best Director nomination for Benh Zeitlin and his own far less meticulous, delicate, sharp emotional jumble of a film is practically miraculous. The contrast between Zeitlin’s spirited exuberance and Haneke’s cold calculation is stark, but I have little doubt that both will stand the test of time as masterpieces. Ben Affleck, eat your heart out.
Now playing in scattered indie theaters.
Verdict: 4 out of 4 stars