The amount of affection in Michael Haneke’s Amour is almost heartbreaking.
The great comedian Louis C.K. has a bleak, brilliant riff about why he finds it hard to be optimistic about dating. He says the best thing that could possibly happen is that you’ll meet somebody who completes you in every way and you’ll live happily together, but then one of you will die and the other, having lost their best friend, will just sit around all day, waiting for their turn to become nothing. And that’s the best-case scenario.
I thought about that C.K. bit a lot during Amour, a brilliantly acted and impeccably crafted film that I never, ever want to see again. Michael Haneke makes a lot of these movies. The silver-bearded, doggedly humorless Austrian filmmaker has a temperament best described as punitive. Films like Caché and Funny Games torment their upper-crust, bourgeois protagonists—and by extension the kind of audiences who go see subtitled art films. To be a Haneke fan is to be a masochist.
With Amour he’s found a villain even more ruthless than the homicidal home invaders in Funny Games, crueler than the proto-Nazi children in The White Ribbon and as devastating as the apocalypse in his Time of the Wolf. In Amour, the bogeyman is old age, wreaking havoc with the inevitable passing of time.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers in their 80s, comfortably settled into their twilight years in a vast Parisian apartment that looks like a library. There are occasional visits from their self-obsessed daughter (Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert) and one trip into town for a performance by Anne’s most successful pupil (pianist Alexandre Tharaud, playing himself). But a mysterious pre-credit sequence has already warned us of unfathomable darkness on the horizon, and clouds quickly begin gathering one morning when Anne goes blank over breakfast.
It was most likely a stroke, and another will follow. Soon comes partial paralysis and then loss of speech. With all of today’s medical advances, death often takes its sweet time, and Haneke keeps the camera locked in the middle distance, fading in and fading out on Anne’s advancing physical and mental disintegration within rigidly composed frames. It’s a chilling, pitiless vision that offers no relief, just a portrait of decline.
There’s an ache in Trintignant’s performance that is palpably heartbreaking. But this is hardly an emotionally effusive couple, and you’re not going to find any sentimental speeches in a Haneke movie. Georges and Anne knew these days would eventually arrive, and they’re just trying to get through the inevitable with a bit of dignity. “We have always coped, your mother and I,” he flatly says to Huppert, the matter-of-fact words belied by a sadness behind his eyes.
Georges promised not to send her back to the hospital, and the walls begin to close in on the formerly spacious apartment as the demands of home care take their toll. It’s an ordeal sitting through Amour, in which the hushed air of austerity is broken only by almost imperceptibly understated moments of tenderness. I don’t think I’ll soon shake the loving embrace with which Georges carries Anne from the toilet, as shattering a depiction of “for better or for worse” as has probably ever been captured on-screen.
And yet, as with most Haneke projects, I find his precision suffocating. The filmmaking is always so fussy and exacting, determinedly marching through the director’s chosen thesis statement with no deviations or surprises. Once you know where Amour is going (and the prologue leaves viewers little reason to assume otherwise), there’s nothing left but to run out the clock, which I believe might be the point, but it doesn’t make it any easier to watch.
I’m sure everybody brings his or her own personal baggage to Amour. My own grandfather spent the last 10 years of my grandmother’s life caring for her at home after a stroke, with certain medical details unnervingly similar to those depicted in the film. Maybe it’s because I was young, and Georges and Anne are very different personality types, but when I think of my grandparents, I don’t think of the severity and repressed anguish that Haneke sometimes wallows in here. I mostly recall laughter, watching Lawrence Welk and the beaming adoration Bill and Jule shared for one another even in the most painful of circumstances. That, to me, is the best-case scenario.
Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert. Written and directed by Michael Haneke. At Kendall Square and West Newton Cinema.