Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Movie Review: Michael Haneke's "Amour"

Directed and written by Michael Haneke
Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert

Michael Haneke, Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant on the set of Amour 
Throughout his career—from his first feature, 1989’s The Seventh Continent, about a family’s methodical preparation for suicide, to his most recent, 2009’s The White Ribbon, about a small German town that leads to fascism—no one has ever accused Michael Haneke of sentimentality. In his latest film, Amour—an intermittently powerful exploration of the reality of death—an elderly Parisian couple deals with the wife’s incapacitating stroke, and it’s no surprise to note that Haneke’s film is as far from the sappiness of On Golden Pond as possible. At least until the end.

As in his other films, Haneke dispassionately records narrative events as they unfold (his ace cinematographer is Darius Khondji): a concert that former music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) attend begins the film after a disorienting prologue that telegraphs the ending—well, sort of. Haneke shoots the majority of his film from a medium or long-shot distance, and such visual detachment is broken in startling ways in Amour. As Haneke cuts to close-ups of Georges and Anne, he brings the intimacy of their love and pain much closer after she starts spiraling downhill.

As a director, Haneke is masterly; as a writer, rather less so. His films are usually predicated on “shocking” displays of inhumanity, but his scripts are usually blunt and obvious, often mitigating their visceral power. However, in Amour—which was seemingly designed by the director to prove that he can treat a humane situation as devastatingly as his best films about inhumanity, like 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance or Cache—what begins as an intelligent examination of dealing with the finality of death is transformed into a quasi-mystical drama about avoiding dealing with the finality of death.

This is first hinted at in the bizarre dream Georges has one night, then is really hammered home in two symbolic appearances by a pigeon in the couple’s beautifully appointed Parisian apartment, the second of which leads directly into an ending that comes as a crashing copout by a director who has lost his nerve: despite being telegraphed in the opening shots, the actual ending is a soft pillow rather than the hard ground hinted at early on.

Despite such cynicism, Amour remains a forceful character study, and that’s due mainly to persuasive acting by two French acting icons who between them have totaled over a century of onscreen brilliance. Jean-Louis Trintignant (who made his mark with Bridgitte Bardot in Roger Vadim’s 1959 And God Created Woman) is touchingly vulnerable as a husband not entirely comfortable with emotions, and his often stiff walk physicalizes his personality. As superb as he is, however, it’s Emmanuelle Riva (remarkable in Alain Resnais’ debut, Hiroshima mon Amour, in 1959)  who gives an emotionally devastating portrayal of a woman losing control of her body but not her mind, and whose astonishingly physical transformation—the actress seems to be receding before our eyes—is the movie’s lasting and most profound image.

There are perfectly realized moments of black humor, such as when Georges’ description of an awful funeral he attended is stopped by Anne suddenly blurting out, “There’s no reason to go on living,” which in its suddenness is far more persuasive and incisive than scenes of Anne dealing with being paralyzed on one side or even Georges angrily slapping his wife when she spits out water he gave her to drink.

And despite the haunting piano music of Schubert on the soundtrack, the film’s two subplots—visits by Alexandre, Anne’s former pupil, the pianist whose recital they attended at the beginning of the film (played by a real-life concert pianist Alexandre Tharaud), and by their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert, unable to overcome the clich├ęd role of an overly needy daughter), whom they do not want to see her mother’s demise—seem shoehorned in by Haneke to try and make the film a wider panorama of relationships. Instead, their appearances mute the film’s attempt to dramatize the ultimate price paid by its protagonist couple, to its unfortunate—if not lasting—detriment.

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