This review originally appeared in a slightly edited form in The Big Issue, Edition #426, February 22 2013
Amour, the latest from Austrian auteur MIchael Haneke, is an unsparing depiction of mortality. Long-married couple Anne and Georges are enjoying breakfast in their Parisian apartment, when Anne goes blank; slack jawed and glassy eyed. Georges has enough time to putter to the bedroom for his coat before she is back, unaware, and gently mocking him for his concern. But ageing is running its course, and after a failed operation to unblock her carotid artery, Anne is partially paralysed and confined to a wheelchair, with worse to come.
She extracts from Georges a promise that he will never return her to hospital, and their home becomes the hospice of their final days together. Georges tends to his wife with devoted patience, as the difficult choices that follow the decline of a loved one become apparent.
Haneke, a two time winner of the Palme d’Or—for this, and 2009’s The White Ribbon—is famous for the immaculate formal control he exerts over his films. He is almost Hitchcockian in his ability to influence his audience. With his unsparing depictions of violence in earlier movies, like Funny Games, this has sometimes manifested as a kind of cruelty. But in Amour this ruthlessness takes the form of brutal honesty. He shows us every step of Anne’s physical and mental deterioration, until it is too much to bear, and in the process makes the reality of mortality—often treated so casually in cinema—alive to us again.
He is aided by the performances of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, two long-time stars of French cinema. As performed by Riva, Anne’s descent into mute suffering is all the more affecting for the sharpness she exhibits her early scenes. And Trintignant is remarkable in his ability to keep Georges composed and dignified even as his frustration roils under the surface.
Haneke has a tendency to wrap his films up in a puzzle, sending the audience out on a note of uncertainty. I’m thinking of the studied ambiguity of the endings of Caché and The White Ribbon. His reluctance to unpack his narratives has, in the past, sometimes felt like that of a magician unwilling to reveal his tricks, or admit they are tricks. True to form, he resolves Amour in a dream-like ellipsis. But the emotional effects he has produced are no illusion, and his core subject is presented with such clarity that it cannot be overwhelmed.