Michael Haneke is known for the cruelty of his films. Having seen Funny Games (2007) (review), the reputation is well-deserved. And Haneke is a master. Funny Games is like a loud, booming voice and it callis out “Despair! Despair!” I complied. Amour (2012) is very different. Amour speaks in a quiet, soothing voice whispering “Accept. Accept.” Both films concern approaching death, and are filmed in roughly the same way, but the manner of the approach makes all the difference. The word onAmour is that it’s a tear-jerker, a painful depiction of a slow, natural death that makes for rough viewing. Like no other movie, this response depends greatly on your relationship with the subject. To some who rarely consider it, Amour may be shocking and alien, but the poise and endurance of the main characters suggested something more neutral. It makes one ache if it does not make one cry.
Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) is a piano teacher in her winter years, living a comfortable, retired life in Paris with her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). One day, while they’re eating, Anne stops responding. She stares off into space, catatonic. When she comes to, she has no memory of the event and is frightened by it. Later, she suffers a stroke, leaving her right side paralyzed. Anne is terrified of doctors and hospitals and Georges takes responsibility for her treatment. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) doesn’t live close and when she visits, the deterioration seems severe and makes them uncomfortable. But as Anne says, “I know it can only get worse.”
Early in the film it isn’t quite clear why it was Riva and not Trintignant with the Academy Award buzz. About thirty minutes into the film, you begin to understand and by the final act, it’s absolutely clear. Her incredible patience and restraint is astounding. Later, when Anne begins to lose it—and I think we can dispose with “spoiler alerts” for this review—Riva’s performance takes the breath away. The cinematography from Haneke and Darius Khondji is what might inspire allegations of cruelty. The camera is utterly still for roughly eighty percent of the film. When I reflect on the images of the film, it is as though I’m standing in a doorway, looking straight ahead, watching thirty-second clips of their deterioration. The only movement (as I can recall) is a few turns about the X and Y axes. It can induce an uncomfortable level of detachment or numb feeling. However, because of the performances by Trintignant and Riva, the kinder reading is a reflected calm or acceptance. When the shock finally comes, then, it felt like unspoken understanding. It wasn’t like it was predicted, none of that “Ah ha, I knew it” kind of dark satisfaction. It was more like something out of Camus’ The Stranger.
Watching Amour is a lot like looking at a painting. You look and look and look, glancing over the lines and contours, admiring the beauty and the craft. Sometimes you only dimly understand the feeling, but you can see it and partly appreciate it. But the lack of action combined with the camera’s stillness creates an experience almost exactly like sitting in a museum. For most of us, there is no including ourselves in a painting in the same way one does in a film. Sometimes, you can feel as though you’re in the backseat, riding along with the characters in an action film or another guest at the party of a comedy. But with Amour, you watch passively, like a non-entity.
So, you can be immersed, but you can’t hope to change outcomes. There’s no, “Don’t go in there!” or “Just ask her out!” That’s the central cruelty of Funny Games. In that film, you absolutely hope against hope that someone will get away, that the bad guys will show some mercy, someone will let you out of this place, but it’s all a terrible tease. From the first moment of the film, we know almost exactly how this ends. The only question is how the character approached that end. So it is engaging, but it would be difficult to claim that it was entertaining.
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