Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Amour (2012)

When Amour premiered at Cannes last May and subsequently began making the rounds internationally, many critics took to praising it as a "softer" and "more accessible" film from Austrian auteur Michael Haneke. Haneke is notorious for making films that explore the random acts of violence that occur in everyday life, employing his trademark impartial, voyeuristic visual style that seems to intentionally prevent the audience from connecting with the characters onscreen. Perhaps his most infamous film is Funny Games (both the original German and the American remake), in which a pair of men enter a family's home and proceed to torment them gruesomely. His films can be difficult, to say the least (though perhaps not to the same degree as fellow European provocateur Lars von Trier).

Amour is only "more accessible" in that it isn't as physically violent as some of his other films. The story concerns Georges (the magnificent Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (French New Wave legend Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly couple who live in a spacious Parisian apartment. Anne suffers a debilitating stroke, which leaves her paralyzed on her right side. Georges takes it upon himself to take care of her, refusing to take her to a hospital or hospice, even though their daughter (Isabelle Huppert, a Haneke regular) urges him to do so.

However, the film is not a "softer" side of Haneke. Yes, the title translates simply to "Love," and Georges insistence on taking care of Anne is, in a sentimental light, a powerful declaration of his undying love for her. But Haneke frames the story with his trademark alienation, and instead of being an arty romance, it becomes a meditation on something far more sinister. This time around, the violent aggressor isn't a person, or history (as it was in Cache or The White Ribbon); it's age. The film becomes increasingly heartbreaking as we, the audience, can only passively watch as Georges watches the love of his love disappear before his eyes. Age, Haneke proposes, is the ultimate aggressor: there's nothing that can be done to stop it, and ultimately it destroys us and everything we've created in our lives. Make no mistake, Amour is a dour film. Don't mistake it for being "softer;" it's not for the feint of heart, even if it's not as gory as previous Haneke films.

The film is remarkably spare in scope, with most of the film's action contained to their apartment (it should be said that Haneke does a remarkable job with laying out the geography of the apartment; most Hollywood productions fail to master this understanding of visual space). With the exception of a handful of visitors who pass through, the focus is completely on Georges and Anne, and Trintignant and Riva, respectively, are nothing short of riveting. Riva recently became the oldest Best Actress Oscar nominee ever for this performance, and she more than deserves it. She makes the process terrifying, showing us Anne's impish spirit early and then slowly losing it until she becomes a shell. Trintignant, in his first credited film role in nine years, matches her performance by showing Georges' stubbornness and helplessness as he deals with the situation. Huppert's brief scenes with couple (mostly Georges) give her a chance to show us years of damage and complexity, without ever blatantly discussing it.

Amour is not an easy film to watch, much like any of Haneke's films. But it is among his strongest, as well as being one of the year's best films as well. It's a heartbreaking film that sticks with you long after the fade-to-black. A