On the surface, Amour seems to be Michael Haneke’s attempt at humanism and delicacy. While it is certainly humanistic and delicate, Amour is just as dark, misanthropic and unflinching as all of Haneke’s films. Haneke is one of cinema’s greatest auteurs, and despite Amour’s superficial pathos and anthropocentricity, Haneke’s latest film fits very comfortably in his oeuvre. His characters are all endemically flawed, and they relate to each other in surreptitiously violent ways. Every one of Haneke’s films is driven by the violence and deception that underpins human relationships, and how the media fuels this.
The narratology of every Haneke film is almost identical. His protagonists are often called Anne and George, or a variation on these names – from Benny’s Video to Funny Games to Hidden. He subjects his protagonists to torturous, violent circumstances often simply because they are privileged, bourgeois Europeans. He often critiques, in a highly postmodern, self-reflexive manner, the psychological impacts of ultra-violent media texts, chastising mainstream cinema audiences in the process. Every Haneke film is the same story, retold with slightly different quirks.
His directorial style is consumed by a desire to subvert every one of the audience’s desires. You often walk out of a Haneke film feeling hollow, sensing the nihilistic weight of human failures on your shoulders. Amour is deeply emotional and restrained, but no less confronting and impactful than his other works. This film is about an octogenarian Parisian couple named (once again) Anne and Georges, played with excruciating power by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant respectively. One morning, Anne suddenly has a stroke which, after failed surgery, leaves her semi-paralysed, speechless and, ultimately, fatalistic about her future. The film focuses on the relationship between Anne and Georges after her stroke, and Georges’ struggle to cope with his wife’s illness; even after fifty years of marriage, their relationship is constantly evolving.
This is not a tender, sentimental film, despite what the synopsis potentially insinuates. Haneke keeps his characters at an arm’s length, but far from depersonalising the film, this makes his complex characters objects of scrutiny. There is no intrusive, nondiegetic music manipulating the audience’s sympathies towards Anne and Georges, and their insolent daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert). Despite their disturbing, egocentric and resolute actions, Haneke never judges his characters – instead, he critiques human nature in general.
But that doesn’t mean that the audience cannot judge them. Georges fires a nurse who has been treating Anne brutally. Eva seems more concerned with her own trauma rather than her mother’s, and wants Anne to enter a nursing home. There are various acts that Georges performs towards the end of the film that I should not spoil; however, Haneke does not outwardly sympathise with nor completely castigate his actions, thus allowing the audience to come to their own conclusion.
While there is no gore in Amour, unlike some of Haneke’s more explicitly sickening films, there is certainly violence. The film opens with an extraordinary continuous shot that weaves in and out of the couple’s labyrinthine apartment. The camera eventually stumbles upon Anna’s corpse, before flashing back to when she was alive. The violent acts in the film are out of frustration, anger, selfishness, impatience and, sometimes, love – the titular ‘amour’. When depicting violence as a by-product of personal, intrinsic love, Haneke displays a deeper complexity to his auteurist vision than, perhaps, ever before. Rarely has the violence in Haneke’s previous films been motivated by an insurmountable, unassailable, intangible sense of love.
Indeed, Haneke uses his camera as a catalyst for the audience’s scrutiny of Anne, Georges and Eva’s behaviour. There are no eleven-minute shots like in Funny Games, but there are some incredibly long takes, many of them static medium and long-shots. The film’s second scene is a long-shot of a crowded theatre with Anne and Georges somewhere in the throng of people. It takes us a while to find them amongst the hoi polloi, because Haneke gives us no assistance in finding them. This is a microcosm of the film itself – Haneke distances us from his characters so we can analyse their behaviour without being too sentimentally attached to them. There is no denying the heart-wrenching power of the film’s climax, but there is always a restrained objectivity and slight detachment to Haneke’s direction.
This is exquisitely complemented by Riva and Trintignant’s performances. Their performances are as physical as they are verbal, from Riva’s stony impassivity and dribbling to Trintignant’s understated grief and the toll it is taking on his body. It is Georges who has a greater arc, as he perpetually tries to deal with his wife’s sickness and his own depression. However, while the film itself is melancholic, it is not depressing. At times, the dialogue is on-the-nose and overly expositional, but I hear the film has a sense of dark humour that was largely lost in translation.
Haneke’s commentary on media culture is more subtle and less didactic than in his other films. Nevertheless, he is inviting us to question our own viewing habits. In the era of reality television and phone-tapping scandals, should we really be analysing the tragic lives of human beings unravel in front of us when we can do nothing to rectify their behaviour? Even though Anne and George are fictional, there story is not. It is no coincidence that the first time we see Anne and George as a couple is when they in the theatre, presumably waiting to watch a character-driven drama. The way that George connects with Anne is the same way the Haneke connects with his audience – the relationship may seem sinister and insidious, but ultimately it is born out of mutual necessity and respect.
Despite what you’ve heard, or what you may have read, Amour is quintessential Michael Haneke.