Michael Haneke’s Amour is a detailed, almost minimalist look at a married couple in their eighties after the wife has had a stroke. It is superbly acted and almost excruciating in its intensity. But after leaving the theater I had to wonder–why was I supposed to watch this?
Haneke, of course, is known for films that are not easy to stomach. I still won’t see either version of Funny Games because that sort of thing just would disturb me too much. This film is much more pedestrian–Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are upper middle class Parisians in their comfortable retirement. We don’t know much about them, other than that she was a piano teacher. The film begins with the two attending a concert by an ex-pupil. The camera focuses on the audience from the point of view of the stage. If you knew nothing about the stars you wouldn’t know who the film was going to be about.
One morning Riva is sitting at the kitchen table and goes into a trance. Trintingnant things she’s joking around, but she has no memory of the incident. We flash forward to her coming back from the hospital partially paralyzed, an operation on her carotid has failed. She is defiant in her attempts to be able to take care of herself, but she can not. She dreads a visit by her daughter (Isabelle Huppert) because she doesn’t want to be seen this way.
After another stroke Riva is reduced to an invalid, and there is no hope of recovery. We understand what Haneke means by the title, the French word for “love”–this is what love is. It means after decades of togetherness, dealing with the infirmities of age. Trintignant is patient and unyielding in his devotion to her, chiding her for suggesting she is a burden to him. True love is sticking with someone through illness, and changing their diaper. I was struck by the way he must pick her up out of the wheelchair, with her arm around his neck and her arms around her waist–a lover’s embrace.
While this is strong stuff, I found it a bit too excruciating. I can’t remember any moment of comedy or lightheartedness, and surely even in situations like this there can be something to laugh at. Some scenes are very well written, particular a scene late in the film when Trintignant tells Huppert he doesn’t have time to think about his daughter’s concern. But in the long run, what does this film say? That it’s tough getting old? That love can last past death? I’m not quite sure.
It’s not the usual film that gets Oscar nominations, and Riva, in particular, gives an unglamorous but scintillating performance (not many octogenarian women would agree to nude scenes) and Trintignant, while his part doesn’t have the sickness quotient, is essential to make this film work–the movie really is about how he handles the crisis. Haneke’s direction is also effective–he favors long takes (the average time between cuts may be longer than thirty seconds) and a static camera. With only a few exceptions, the camera does not move, and characters move in and out of view, making the viewer seem more like a voyeur. In one scene, the ex-pupil visits, and while Trintingnant goes to get Riva the camera simply focuses on the young pianist, waiting in the living room. At one point there is a ten-or-so-second shot of the landlady vacuuming the rug.
But there are moments that are a bit heavy handed. A pigeon makes two appearances, and if one knows that a dove is a sign of death than it’s a bit obvious. I would have liked to know more about the characters, other than that they like classical music. Watching the movie is like being in a pressure cooker–it needs to breathe a bit. There is no score, and as I said, no moments of levity. Even MacBeth had a comic scene.
This is a very good film, but not a great one. My grade for Amour: B+.