I have given Michael Haneke’s Oscar-nominated Amour a grudging, noncommittal three stars for the simple fact that I cannot actually say it is a bad movie. It is technically proficient — within the range required by Haneke’s (let’s say) unadorned, dispassionate style. It is certainly well-acted. It presents its story clearly and coherently. It is perfectly in keeping with Haneke’s established glacial aesthetic and totally unsentimental worldview. It is also slow and deeply unpleasant — meaning that it ranks very high indeed as a prime example of le cinema de médecine mauvais, and is therefore important and good for you. I say it’s épinards and I say to hell with it. There, I’ve said it. And I’m glad — glad, do you hear me? If, from all this, you have gleaned the idea that I disliked Mr. Haneke’s latest outburst of profundity, you would be correct. This, however, is by no means meant to disuade anyone from seeing Amour. No, this is is a film that people should see and judge for themselves. Haneke, after all, has his adherents. While I find his films off-putting, slow, humorless and lacking any sense of humanity, others obviously disagree,
Strangely, this particular film is supposed to be something of a departure — a kinder, gentler Haneke, if you will. The idea was that this examination of the last days of an upscale octogenarian couple had somehow humanized the filmmaker. Personally, I saw no evidence of this — and that was true right from the start with its largely pointless preamble involving a rescue team breaking into their apartment after the fact. I might buy the idea Haneke wants the viewer to know this is going to end badly from the onset. (Since it was Haneke, I had assumed that sight unseen.) Does that mean that we needed to see the rescue workers cover their faces from the smell of a decomposing corpse? Probably not, though I’m sure the rationale is realism. However, it’s part and parcel of the more-clinical-than-human tone that pervades the film, which refers back to what led to this grim opening.
From that opening, the film jumps back in time to introduce us to Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a pair of haute bourgeoisie retired music teachers. (Given Haneke’s history, it’s hard not to assume that his lack of evident compassion stems from their place on the social ladder.) They’re out for an evening watching one of Anne’s former pupils play. They seem quite comfortable in their world, but when they get home they find someone has tried to jimmy the lock to their apartment. What they don’t know, suggests Haneke, is their fears are misplaced since the dangers facing them are in themselves. (Haneke’s other dose of symbolism — involving a pigeon that gets into the apartment — is similarly heavy-handed.) The next morning, we see the first signs of the condition that will claim Anne. The progression is dealt with quickly since Haneke’s interest lies in having us watch the couple at home as things go from bad to worse on the road to the inevitability established in the film’s opening — with, of course, the expected Haneke moment of shock before we get there.
How you respond to this is going to depend entirely on whether you find Haneke’s unsentimental detachment a dose of bold realism or the nihilistic rumblings of a filmmaker enamoured of misery for its own sake. My take leans toward the latter, and my feeling is that any trace of humanity in the film comes from the performances of the two leads — an accomplishment all the more impressive given the way they’re virtual prisoners of Haneke’s nailed-down formalism. Ironically, this formal approach proves Haneke’s own undoing when he tries to lead us down the garden path with a dream sequence, which is so unlike the rest of the film that we immediately know something is up. So, does it add up to a brilliant piece of cinema? Or is it merely more Haneke nihilism in different clothing? You decide. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language.
Starts Friday at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14