Facing the ultimate challenge with love in ‘Amour’
Updated: February 11, 2013 6:34AM
It seems safe to say that writer/director Michael Haneke (“The White Ribbon,” “Funny Games,” “The Piano Teacher”) does not have warm and fuzzy feelings about the human condition.
His films contemplate human behavior at its worst — brutality, betrayal, murder, humiliation, sexual degradation — with a cold, detached and misanthropic eye. They do their best to make us reevaluate whatever comforting notions we may have about life, love, security and the social contract — about our ability to order the world into a benign, even benevolent place.
It’s generally understood that one does not leave a Haneke film with a smile and a heart full of song. Unless perhaps one is a sociopath and a sadist.
The same holds true for the much-celebrated, Cannes Festival-winning “Amour,” a film that forces us to confront the very thing we like least to consider — the end of our lives. Without sentiment, without false comfort, but with one new ingredient as the title suggests: tenderness and devotion. And the suggestion that we can indeed order things the way that we wish, but only with great effort and at great cost.
“Amour” is the story of Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, both superb, both marking in a new high point in their five-decades-long careers) a cultured and sophisticated married couple, now in their ‘80s, retired from their careers as pianists and music teachers and living comfortably in a large Parisian apartment filled with books and music. We get the sense that they have been there a very long time and that, while there is a certain distance between them, their life together has mostly been good. Their golden-years routine is implied in one of the opening scenes, during which they attend the concert of one of Anne’s former students and return home discussing the finer points of his technique—with Georges offering Anne a compliment on how pretty she looked during the performance.
All of that changes suddenly the next morning, however, when Anne suddenly goes blank mid-sentence during a conversation at breakfast. She is there one moment, then gone entirely, staring vacantly at the increasingly alarmed Georges, only to return minutes later with no awareness of what has happened.
That momentary disappearance is the first symptom of a stroke that quickly proceeds to devastate her after a preventive surgery fails to work. The next time we see her, they are returning from the hospital with Anne in a wheelchair, her entire right side paralyzed. And the first thing she does when they get home is to exact a promise from Georges that he will never, under any circumstances, take her to the hospital again. A promise that Georges does his best to fulfill, even when it takes him far beyond the limits of normal attempts to cope with such a terrible event. Far beyond the point of no return.
The rest of the film is devoted to Georges’ valiant attempt to fight a holding action against Anne’s infirmity, which moves slowly but inevitably from bad to worse, until a second stroke renders her entirely helpless and unable to communicate. Along the way, Anne suffers increasingly grim indignities, past the point where she can wash herself or control her own bodily functions, long past the point when she first announces to Georges that she no longer wishes to live.
Haneke chronicles Anne’s decline with dozens of short, silent, almost wordless scenes that are, for the most part, coolly detached and unemotional. Both Georges and Anne know that things are not going to get better, a fact that he faces with dogged determination while she reluctantly continues to go through the motions of physical and vocal therapy while resisting, even resenting, his attempts to help. Though there are also happy moments, here and there, in which they reflect on their past—Anne at one point looking up from a photo album to say, “It’s beautiful, life.”
They know what the inevitable end will be, but they say very little about it, either to each other or to their daughter (Isabelle Huppert), who shows up occasionally to express ineffectual anxiety about the situation. Instead, they burrow deeper and deeper into the insular world of their apartment, which eventually begins to seem less like a home and more like a tomb—until Georges finally, literally, seals it off from the outside world.
There are a handful of jarring moments along the way—including one in which Georges becomes so frustrated with Anne’s resistance that he slaps her across the face for spitting out the water he has patiently coaxed her to drink—and one extreme shock before the film ends on an emotionally draining, yet strangely ambiguous, note.
“Amour” is very clear on one point, though. We know a life-or-death struggle has taken place in that quiet apartment, involving two people who face the ultimate challenge on their own terms. However disturbing their choices may seem, each of them takes a stand and refuses to yield. In the end, they determine their own fate and, in that sense, they are not defeated.
For Haneke, thus far, that’s about as hopeful as things get.