Like Werner Herzog before him, Michael Haneke is a student of human nature. Not only the way we act as individuals but the very nature of our human “being.” From his confrontational Funny Games to the brutal beauty of The White Ribbon, his is a vision in which the seemingly innocuous and normal wind up exposing a raw, seething malevolence within. It’s the same with his Cannes and Oscar winning effort Amour. Using a very simple storyline (an aging couple face a catastrophic illness), Haneke wrestles away the obvious sentimentality in the situation to argue over what those who still have life would/will do with those crashing into the end head on.
Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are noted pianists and music teachers whose most celebrated student (Alexandre Tharaud) has just returned to Paris for a concert. The next morning, she starts to act a bit funny. Soon after, she suffers a debilitating stroke. At first, everyone believes she might make it. But as things turn for the much, much worse, Georges is facing two huge dilemmas. One is his growing anger and resentment towards his bedridden wife. The other is the constant complaints and criticism of his grown daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert). She wants her mother put in a home. He won’t hear of it. As things grow more and more desperate, Georges feels the need to escape. The only thing standing between him and freedom? His crippled, vegetative spouse.
Amour is a devastating work of brilliance buffered by Haneke’s always arch approach to personal interaction. His characters don’t calm each other. Instead, they tend to attack like injured animals, each one working out their own specific agenda on the other. This is particularly true of Georges and his daughter Eva. They have a couple of standoffs which open up bitter, painful wounds between them. She believes her father is trying to deny her mother a “quality of life.” He argues that she has no life to qualify. This, in turn, leads to comments about their past, obvious professional rivalries, and Georges own acknowledgement of his own mortality. It comes to a head in an ending where our lead does something unconscionable, and is yet perfectly understandable given the circumstances.
Unlike his other films, where Haneke seems to be chiding the viewer, Amour lets us languish in the voyeuristic pain of being witness to Anne’s downward spiral. Ms. Riva, deservedly nominated for an Oscar, shows us just how awful it can be lose one’s ability to function but not feel, to be restricted in the ability to communicate and yet use other more awful means to get one’s point across. Anyone who’s ever suffered with a terminally ill family member will find the last act very difficult to watch. As Anne turns even more inhuman, the desire to break out of her physical prison becomes more and more obvious. It’s a losing battle, but one Haneke feels fulfills his artistic desires.
The result is a masterpiece of misery that stands alongside any other late in life drama. Trintignant and Riva make a marvelous pair, one where their obvious affections for each other don’t have to be spelled out in long, unnecessary exposition. Similarly, Haneke’s handling of the setting (a wonderfully baroque apartment) offers elements of horror and Hitchcockian thriller as well. Amour earns its accolades by pulling no punches, providing a mesmerizing look at how we die and react to same. It’s a stunning work from a man more capable of provocation than actual insight. This time around, he manages both.