#22 — Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)
Michael Haneke is not gentle with viewers. The Austrian filmmaker built his formidable reputation with material that dwells, to different degrees, on the significant cruelties human beings exact on one another. The appalling instincts within individual natures — and all the ways society codifies and rewards the worst in people — drives his art, delivering a thesis of detached judgment. The films can be hard to watch, but many at least carry the slight safety of feeling like fiction. Situations are heightened, characters are emblematic as much as individualized, and there are suggestions of familiar genres to inch the works away from documentary-like reflections of life. The added power and agony of Amour comes from stern-faced removal of that safety net. More than any other Haneke feature I’ve seen, Amour feels as authentic as an interactions glimpsed through a neighbor’s window.
The film takes up residence with a French couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). Married for ages, Georges and Anne are living a fine life in their older years, attending music events and moving about their Parisian apartment with a shared mutual comfort. Then Anne falls ill, first suffering a stroke and then deteriorating further when the resulting surgery doesn’t go well. Georges commits to protecting Anne from the impersonal indignities of the health care system. He promises to look after her at home, beginning an increasingly grueling experience as Anne’s condition worsens. The situation is dire and exhausting. It is also lovely in its way, marked by devotion and sacrifice. Most of all, it is recognizable. Anne’s path — or a version of it anyway — is one that all must trek across at some point. Mortality is uninterested in negotiating compromises.
Haneke is delicate in his storytelling. Haneke is brutal in his storytelling. Both observations are true, which must be the case for Amour to be truthful. He painstaking guides the narrative through the brief moments of hope and the far more plentiful tragic turns in Ellen’s long descent. And he works with his two lead actors to develop performances of piercing intensity. Riva delivers the sort of acting that is so committed to the wrenching pain of her character that it can almost inspire worry for the performer. Trintignant, charged with a subtler, arguably more complicated task, artfully conveys the weight Georges feels, including hints that he sees his own future demise in the hardship endured by his wife.
Stark and soulful, Amour is humane in its determination to not look away. The film is tough and sad. It is maybe even unpleasant at times. But it is also accepting of the frailty of human life, sharing the hardest details because they must be shared. Doing so is an act of proper grieving and graceful honoring.