Sadistic? Maybe. Hard to watch? Sometimes. Familial? Definitely, though it may take a bit of work to notice.
The films of Michael Haneke are clearly marked by their unsympathetic characters, long takes, and grim subject matter, and while a film called “Amour” suggests an embrace of a less brutal nature, don’t be surprised if you find yourself having more trouble watching it than you did “Funny Games.” That is not to say that Haneke is deliberately trying to torture us, as “Amour,” despite its heartbreaking premise, is still a depiction of exactly the love the title suggests. But to paraphrase an old Francis Ford Coppola quote: “Amour” is not about watching your loved ones die, “Amour” is watching your loved ones die. It is two hours almost entirely in a single apartment with just one couple. By the end of the film, they begin to feel like members of our own family; nobody but family would watch its predetermined ending unfold so fixedly.
Haneke’s verisimilitude is more effective here than it ever has been before, and it makes “Amour” both devastating and breathtaking. When Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) learns that his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) is dying, we watch him, in Haneke’s trademark static long takes, try to help Anne move around their apartment. But Georges is too old to do this quickly, so it unfolds slowly in distinct steps. He turns the wheelchair and pushes it to the point just in front of the living room door. Then he stops, walks around to the front of the door, opens the door, walks back around the wheelchair, turns, and pushes her through the threshold. This sequence could easily be shortened with basic editing, but the uncompromising style makes Georges’ love and dedication clearer and the impending loss all the more powerful. We also watch Georges as he helps Anne off the toilet, cuts her food, feeds her, gives her water, and wipes her mouth. There are no monologues, there is no score, there is only Haneke’s cinematic realism and two masterful performances, and that is all it takes to make us feel like we have known this couple for a very long time.
And indeed, we have. Familial tensions are a defining motif in Haneke’s films. It’s no coincidence that the couple is named Georges and Anne — those names are staples for a Haneke couple in all of his original screenplays (except “71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance,” where there is no central couple). With each film, Haneke introduces a different tension to plague Georges and Anne (or, in his German productions, “Georg” and “Anna”), his stand-in for the ideal family. From the troubling tendencies of their own child in “Benny’s Video” to home-invasion in “Funny Games” to a mysterious, chaotic unraveling of a dream life in “Caché,” there is always an external cause, something more powerful than the family that will destroy them. With “Amour,” however, there are no torturous intruders, no mysterious videotapes, and no series of unexplained accidents. There are no repulsive characters, either. There is only life itself, and two beautifully rendered characters to depict its greatest glory — love — and its sole inevitability — death.
Haneke has been working toward “Amour”‘s realization for quite some time. Without distractions, the dynamic of family life can be freely displayed — not as if it is forced by external circumstances, but as simple, inescapable fact. Haneke flirted with this level of certainty in “Code Unknown,” but he never let lives touch each other for long enough to ever truly create drama. “Caché” calls into question whether a family will naturally destroy itself, but its status as a meta-text accusing the audience of voyeurism feels like a device to hide uncertainty. “The White Ribbon” depicted the perils of an overly familial society but shrouded it in the guise of a mystery story. With “Amour,” Haneke is courageous enough to make an unmediated statement about our human tendencies.
The one mainstay through Haneke’s ouevre is Georges and Anne. In their different incarnations, they have become Haneke’s symbol of the family, and with “Amour” he finally lets us observe how the family develops on its own. The set, the performances, and Trintignant’s acting tell us about the happiness of the characters’ past while hiding the suggested distance from their daughter Eva, allowing open interpretation of how the institution of family will proceed after inevitable death. But as Haneke’s “Amour” stands, the latest in a long line of work focusing on family, it implies love, depicts tragedy, and suggests hope. As such, it is his most fulfilled statement yet, one that shifts the emphasis away from his reputation as a cold sadist and exposes his optimism for love and life. Haneke may make us squirm even in his most affecting film, but “Amour”’s ending is a hopeful and empowering one.
Forrest Cardamenis is a Cinema Studies undergraduate at NYU and aspiring film journalist. You can read his blog here or follow him on Twitter at @FCardamenis. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.