No other foreign film in 2012 racked up as many awards as Amour, a.k.a. Love, by Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke. It’s a love story but it shows the end of that love story, the part where the happily ever after meets the uncomfortable reality we must all eventually face. So, essentially, Haneke has crafted a horror film about getting old (this can happen to you, youngsters!). It’s a hard film to watch, though for me not just because of the subject matter but also because of the maddening ways that Haneke chooses to tell his art-house tales of woe.
Anne (Emannuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are an 80-year-old married couple living in Paris. They are both retired musical teachers, they go about their days together, enjoying one another’s companionship. Then Anne suffers a stroke and starts slipping into senility. Her condition worsens and Georges tries to care for her increasing needs himself, buoyed by her fleeting moments where it seems like her normal self returns. But there’s only one way this story can end, and George must come to terms with letting go of his life’s love.
I will probably come across like a heartless bastard but that is the risk I’m willing to take; I found this movie to be rather boring and was, after an hour, just waiting for Anne to die so that the movie would likewise be at a merciful end. I’m just not a Haneke fan. I didn’t like Cache, I didn’t like (both) Funny Games, and I didn’t like The White Ribbon. In fact, while watching Amour I was reminded of all the reasons I dislike Haneke’s style. There was a sequence where a character leaves a room, but rather than follow that character or cut, the camera holds on the scene for an extended period of time, like 40 seconds, until the actor returns. I said, “Oh, I just remember he did the same thing in The White Ribbon, and I hated it then and I hate it now.” Want to watch an old man chase after a pigeon for five minutes? Oh, I get it, the pigeon is a metaphor, but did I need five minutes of it? I find Haneke’s sense of storytelling to be so glacial and, mostly, a spiral of kamikaze nihilism that’s usually distasteful. He’s such a cold filmmaker and the idea of him handling a “love story” seems dubious. It’s hard to watch a Haneke film and feel good about it. And that’s fine, the world needs downer filmmakers who will tackle serious subjects, but this guy is just not for me. With that said, take everything I recount in my review and analysis with a measure of consideration.
I know my power of empathy is alive and well, so I have to stop and run a diagnostic examination as to why I found it hard to really engage with this movie. I’m sure part of it is my relative youth in comparison to the onscreen couple. Death is still a mostly abstract concept I choose to be blissfully ignorant over. But that can’t be fully it. I went through a similar experience helping to care for my 91-year-old grandmother when she died (she lived with my parents for years before her eventual passing). It’s not the same as losing a spouse, naturally, but I do have a relatable entry point. Maybe it was the acting, which was free of any sort of showy actorly tricks we may expect from people reaching the big end. Death scenes have long been a staple of overacting, but underplaying it can also rob the movie of worthy emotional opportunities, and with an artist like Haneke, you may not get many more opportunities to soak up. While I had heard raves about Riva, and make no mistake she is quite good, I cannot help but think, “Yeah… but….” She’s quite convincing at showing the frailty of aging but she’s also practically comatose for half of the movie (I know I’m a Jennifer Lawrence homer, but glad she won the Oscar). And then Haneke tries to get clever with his ending, especially since he had been so straightforward for the previous two hours. The ending, a possible point of confusion, doesn’t feel like it fits the exacting, grounded reality I just barely stayed awake for.
Amour is really less about Anne, the one slowly dying, as it is Georges coming to terms with his own selfishness, prolonging his love’s life after the point of dignity and mercy. It’s about how he comes to terms with the reality that he cannot care for his beloved, that she is too much of a burden, and that she ultimately wants to die and will fight her husband to achieve this wish. Again, this is an extremely dramatic storyline that could have developed some monstrously powerful examinations about end-of-life care. Sadly, I just didn’t, well, care too much. The relationship between Anne and Georges is very thinly realized onscreen. I’m sorry but I hate it when a character is afflicted so early in a story and that affliction becomes the stand-in for what should be proper characterization. All I know about Anne is her deteriorating condition. I don’t know about her life, her personality, her relationship with her husband before senility sets in. I’m just supposed to automatically feel for her because she’s old and suffered a stroke and her husband really cares a lot. Haneke’s storytelling has not done an adequate job to involve me. The actors, both quite good, can only do so much. There’s a reason that Hollywood has its heroines start the Cough That Symbolizes Terminal Illness when we hit the third act because by that time we’ve gotten to know them and care about their ultimate plight.
Now, Amour goes about its death business in a very sensitive but unsentimental way, which has and will likely emotionally devastate many a viewer. There are serious and hard discussions the movie gives adequate attention to, like how far can one spouse cope with care, when does holding on serve as a detriment, breaking the news to heartsick family members that your loved one isn’t getting any better, coming to terms with the inevitable, the tricky debate about what comes next as far as inheritances, and whether the person who is suffering should have a say in their care or lack thereof. It’s refreshing that serious decisions are given serious consideration, but like everything else, Haneke drags these out to great lengths that I stopped caring.
I find Haneke to be an outrageously overrated filmmaker of clinical coldness and occasional contempt. Just watch Funny Games to see what the man’s opinion is for most movie audiences lapping up your rote thrillers. Better yet, if you’re like me, don’t see Funny Games, and don’t see The White Ribbon, and don’t see Amour. I fully acknowledge I’m out on a critical limb here, cherishing my minority status, but I found this Oscar-winning film to be painfully ponderous and emotionally closed off. I’m happy people can watch Amour and see a great, tragic, affecting love story, because I don’t see it. The actors do fine jobs but the characterization is weak, relying upon circumstance and affliction in place of characterization. Maybe, and this is just a harebrained theory, but maybe Haneke dragged his movie out so long to symbolize Georges’ journey, so that we too, the audience, felt like when the end came it was a relief. I know for me, it did. Whatever Haneke does next, you can count me out. I’m done with the guy. After all, life’s too short to endure more plodding Haneke films.
Nate’s Grade: C+