On the surface, it would seem that Amour, the latest film from 70-year-old auteur Michael Haneke, is a departure from his usual work. After all, his last movie, The White Ribbon, was about the rise of fanaticism in post-World War I Germany, and the film prior to that, a shot-for-shot American remake of his own movie, Funny Games, is all about the sadistic abuses humans can inflict on one another.
His movies are dark and bleak and often about people trapped by horrible circumstance or horrible people, yet they’re beautifully constructed. He’s a punishing filmmaker, but The White Ribbon won the Palm d’Or at Cannes, and so did Amour, which puts Haneke in a select group of filmmakers who’ve earned the honor twice.
The thing is, Amour really doesn’t diverge from Haneke’s worldview at all. It’s a simple story: An elderly French couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), are living out their lives in retired bliss. They’re former music teachers with famously successful students; they’re an artsy, cultured and adorable older couple who you wish could be your grandparents.
There’s an invasion of sorts. The only time the movie shifts outside their apartment is in the opening moments, when they return home from a concert to see that someone has broken in. Perhaps it wasn’t someone, though, but bad luck, bad health or the end of days.
That night, Anne has a stroke, and when the doctors attempt to repair the damage with surgery, they’re unsuccessful.
It’s all downhill from there, as Georges watches his beloved slowly slip away into dementia, incontinence and misery. And like Haneke’s other films, the protagonists here are trapped—Anne by her failing body and Georges in his apartment, by his wife. I know, that sounds pretty depressing, and it is, because the human suffering expressed in this film is painfully universal: Death is coming for all of us. The heartbreaking humiliation these poor seniors endure is entirely natural but unbelievably traumatic.
You might wonder why you’d want to spend time and money watching the tragedy of the human condition, but Amour is an extremely well-made film. Haneke lets his two leads work, giving them long cuts and wonderful interactions with one another and the few people who are still in their lives, and when it’s over, there’s a lot to think about regarding one’s own mortality.
Sure, this territory—the end of life—has been covered before, but Haneke never does anything like anyone else. There’s a tendency for movies like this to be celebrations of lives led. Not this one. Yes, there’s life and love in Amour, but this movie is very much about death, about the downward spiral each of us will face, whether we pass quickly or slowly. You can’t stop watching because you know that this is your future—everyone’s future, in fact.
For once, Haneke has avoided the misery people can inflict upon each other and has instead come up with something that’s even more frightening. None of us wants to think about shuffling off this mortal coil, but that’s exactly what Haneke wants us to ponder, and by hijacking a feel-good template we’re used to, he terrifies without having the decency to let us know that it’s all part of his master plan. Fate is a cruel mistress, and Haneke remains a cruel master. Yes, that’s tough to swallow, but it’s also brilliantly cerebral filmmaking, an emotional wolf in sheep’s clothing.
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