Too often Michael Haneke is accused of making uncaring films in a cold and bleak universe. While the universe his films exist in is certainly a difficult one, nothing is unrecognisable about his films. That they dare to reflect the world as it occasionally seems is not to dismiss his work. It’s clear that he cares greatly about humanity. He cares greatly about the poor couple in Funny Games, or Benny in Benny’s Video, or the couple in Hidden. While his films are getting progressively warmer, the heart in each of them has remained the same; it just appears to be getting a little closer to the surface with each release.
Amour ably carries on the Haneke warmth trajectory by presenting us with a heartbreaking story, apparently based on real events in the director’s own family, about an elderly couple in crisis. When Anne suddenly suffers from a stroke at breakfast, there’s no histrionics or explosions; she just zones out. When her attention returns, she finds that she’s completely lost the movement down one side of her body. From this low-key catastrophe, Amour unfolds. It’s not a spoiler to say that it doesn’t end well.
Or does it? That depends on your particular philosophical bent. If you’re of the opinion that life should be continued no matter what the cost, then you’ll appreciate a lot of Amour, but will come to completely disagree with its conclusions. If you’re a pragmatist, and you recognise that suffering can overwhelm and make a life not worth living, then you’ll find much to reflect on from Amour. It’s surprising that the film has done so well in America, given the country’s standpoint on euthanasia (which has actually been shown to increase levels of trust between elderly patinets and their doctors, and happiness in general).
Much has rightly been made of the performances on display here. It’s a chamber piece in that the action barely leaves the couple’s beautiful Parisian apartment, and everyone gives a beautifully heartfelt but ultimately realistic performance – Emmanuelle Riva very much deserved her Best Actress nod at the Oscars, and Jean-Louis Trintignant perhaps deserved one as well – and the daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert, gives a fine performance (as ever) even though she’s not in it very much.
The story twists and turns, with each development lurching in the stomach the closer you get to these characters – there’s some beautiful shadowing early on in which there’s the usual Hanekian (… urgh…) unseen malice; a thwarted break-in, which leads to Georges suffering from a nightmare in which the building is flooded and he is attacked by an unseen assailant (whose hand looks suspiciously similar to his wife’s). A metaphor involving a pigeon, which is much more profound than it probably seems here, also compounds the emotions that are impossible to resist.
If any film will finally make Michael Haneke the world’s most famous “foreign film maker”, it should be this one. It’s exciting to wonder where he could go from here.