Signing up for un film de Michael Haneke guarantees that you’ll be shocked and emotionally shattered at some point during a chilly slow burn European think piece. So, it’s not exactly a relaxing night of escapism. Nope, let Haneke guide your night at the movies and you’ll inevitably end up feeling disgusted by humanity and deeply depressed. He’d be a filmmaker worth shifting into the “avoid” pile were it not for the fact that he’s so goddamn talented and seems to crank out masterpieces like Funny Games, Cache, and The White Ribbon at will. Haneke’s latest project Amour might be one of his trickiest films to watch yet in that regard. For large portions of the running time, you’ll actually find yourself becoming deeply emotionally invested and even experiencing moments of genuine warmth. Don’t worry though, that’s all part of his plan. This time Haneke might draw in his audience in a little deeper, but only to ensure that when the hard turn into misery comes, it hurts that much more. Oh you lil’ Austrian rascal!
Admittedly, Haneke’s latest tragic romp opens with police uncovering a crime scene that we know will eventually appear in the third act. However, where he goes from there expertly misdirects into warmth. The film is about an elderly French couple (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) who have settled in to a content rut of retirement. Living in an apartment that perfectly fits their needs and enjoying a life defined by routine, everything seems just right. Then Riva has a sudden and devastating stroke that leaves her partially paralyzed and even starts a subtle slide into dementia. Trintignant admirably dedicates his life to caring for the woman he gave his life to and in the Ron Howard version of Amour the story would transform into a triumph of love and devotion from there. In Haneke’s delightful version, as his beloved’s condition worsens Tringitgnant’s love is tested far beyond what anyone should be asked. Once again, Haneke proves that any depiction of bourgeois comfort is only a small tragedy way from becoming a nightmare.
What immediately needs to be acknowledged about the film (and what has already swallowed up many awards) are the central performances of Riva and Trintignant. More than any other film by this director, Amour is dependent almost entirely on the actors to succeed and he cast the roles beautifully. Riva delivers one of the most gut-wrenching depictions of elderly disintegration in recent memory, limited to a bed and minimal facial movements for most of the film without ever failing to communicate her inner feelings to the audience (or not, when needed). She’s astounding, but just as good is Trintignant. His role might not be as showy, but his progression from adoring husband into a damaged and resentful soul is no less impressive or devastating.
Throughout it all Haneke directs in his usual way. The camera remains distant and observational. The compositions are exact and the overall visual arc is carefully mapped out, yet you might not even notice at first. Haneke’s technique can be so subtle that most viewers won’t be conscious of how much they are being played, but the director is always in control. The aesthetic is cold and detached, that’s just done with purpose so that when the inevitable shocks come there’s no conventional suspense grammar to signify what’s coming or to cut away when it happens. You’re left a powerless observer and while I’m sure Haneke would scoff at the comparison, he’s no less attuned to manipulating his audience than the likes of Alfred Hitchcock. Some may dub this movie lesser Haneke because the movie is less intellectually ambitious than many of his recent efforts and that criticism is fair. The director is creating something lighter here, but for Haneke delivering something even slightly light also qualifies as a drastic change of pace.
Amour is ultimately a love story, Haneke style. It’s a romance rooted in painful sacrifice and degradation, where love becomes a torturous cross to bear. Not exactly heartwarming stuff in the way Hallmark or a Kate Hudson rom-com defines the term, yet undeniably powerful in the hands of such a masterfully manipulative filmmaker. As always, expect slow-burn drama with devastating payoffs that justify the meticulously constructed tension. It says a lot about Haneke’s skill that a single slap to the face in this movie has infinitely more impact that the dozens of bodies falling to the floor in the latest Jason Statham masterpiece (get ready for Parker!). A film that proves once again that Haneke is one of the true filmmaking masters of our time and even if it isn’t in contention for his finest creation, any artist who can make something as deeply affecting as Amour and call it business as usual is clearly someone rather special. If you’re going to voluntarily be depressed by a movie this weekend, there’s no finer train to tear town in the theaters than this.