Make no mistake; Michael Haneke’s film, Amour (Germany / France, 2012), despite its somber potential, is ultimately about a kind of sublime joy. Edmund Burke saw the sublime as “an antithetical contrast to the classical notion of the aesthetic quality of beauty … and suggested ugliness as an aesthetic quality (as well) in its capacity to instill feelings of intense emotion, ultimately creating a pleasurable experience.” In a way, Burke is talking about catharsis – emotional stimulus that creates empathy, and the release of our own anxieties as we experience the anxieties of others. We spend two hours watching two interlocked situations: the slow physical and mental disintegration of a very sweet old lady, and the almost boundless devotion and tenderness of the loving husband who must see her to her end. Haneke could have called his film Death or Loss or Requiem or some other term or phrase from the grieving side of the issue. But there’s a reason that he called it Amour.
The presence of amour is apparent even in the first five minutes of the film; Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) attend the piano recital of one of Anne’s former music students. We see almost the entire crowd from the stage, yet Haneke, through composition, and through the subtle movements and countermovements of the crowd, draws our eyes to this one particular couple. By the time they stand to allow someone to pass by them, we’ve already picked them out, almost effortlessly. Nearly radiant from their enjoyment of the recital, they return home to discover that their front door has been jimmied by would-be thieves, but apparently, unsuccessfully. “Don’t let this put a damper on your good mood,” Georges warmly advises her. These are people who are completely submerged in their own longtime appreciation of each other’s company, and share a mutually-assuring affinity for what’s important and what constitutes the small stuff.
Anne’s predicament starts quietly, almost endearingly. Sitting at the breakfast table one morning, Anne seems to just zone out, trancelike, only to snap out of it a few minutes later. The distressed Georges, who has endured that unresponsive few minutes with bewildered concern, is relieved when she ‘returns,’ completely unaware of her lapse. Georges' earnest attempt to explain what just happened to the oblivious Anne becomes not unlike Bud Abbott trying to explain who the first baseman is to Lou Costello. But this short episode is the first of a series of strokes that will occur.
I don’t want to describe many more specifics of Anne’s slow demise, other than to say that Haneke gives us perfectly appropriate and informative measures of her worsening condition, and not a whit more. We learn far more about it from Georges’ experiences than from any particular direct observation of her, and Haneke’s choice of approach is masterful. How Georges deals with Anne, the helpful building concierge and her husband, her nurses, their well-intentioned daughter Eva (a spot-on Isabelle Huppert, alternately sympathetic and infuriating), and even a benignly-invading pigeon, gives us an immense amount of information about who he is, in terms of his personal history, his temperaments and his morality and ethics, as well as his profound regard for her. I’m delighted that Emmanuelle Riva scored an Oscar nomination for Best Actress - certainly not undeserved - but, for my money, Trintignant’s performance is the truly astonishing turn in the film.
Many Michael Haneke films are about the fierce darkness that can reside in each of us, and how we use the trappings of western society and culture to disguise or deny our acknowledgement of it. In others, the darkness is an outside invading force, but its nasty onslaught is no less inevitable, no less intimate. I’d put this film in the second category,obviously – no doubt Haneke is chortling to himself about critics’ perceptions that he’s ‘softening’ in this delicate and thoughtful film - but it’s of a piece with his other, more overtly disturbing work. When Georges makes the choices he does near the end of the film, they’re no less troubling than Erika Kohut’s final moments in The Piano Teacher, or Daniel Auteuil’s concluding choices in Cache. (The couple’s names in Amour are identical to the characters’ names in Cache, and I’ll leave it to the übergeeks to read into that what they will.)
It’s almost unnecessary to compliment Haneke on the visual beauty of his films anymore – this is obviously the work of a filmmaker with immense visual command. His cinematographer, Darius Khondji, is another irreproachable pro, having done previous work with Haneke, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, David Fincher, Wong Kar Wei and Woody Allen. Haneke is also the sole writer of the screenplay, although I suspect he was wide open to the contributions of his ridiculously experienced actors. As a person who lost his own parents under comparable circumstances (like many), I can tell you that he and his actors have absolutely nailed the truth of the experience.
I won’t recommend the film to people who have recently gone through this themselves – it may be too soon for a number of you, too wrenching in its depiction of the awkward truth of it all. And I suspect others will have a problem with the narrow context of these particular events happening to privileged upper-class white people, despite the undeniable universality of the subject matter. But, in serendipity, I saw this film on the same day I saw Jean Rouch’s sociological documentary Chronicles Of A Summer. In that film, Rouch shows the finished, edited footage to the actual participants in the film, people of widely variant races and classes. Half of the participants react negatively – they assert that what Rouch is showing is too intimate, too exposing. The other half finds that quality to be the film’s most compelling aspect. I suspect that many viewers of Amour will have those same polarized reactions – it’ll be uniquely, movingly cathartic, or it’ll be none of our goddamn business. I, myself, thought it was brilliant, and (outside of my previous caveats) recommend it without reservation.