Haneke’s Amour: Major bummer

Master provocateur Michael Haneke turns his gaze from violence and perversity to the equally brutal reality of aging, sickness and death in this powerful but hard-to-watch drama.

The latest from the always provocative Michael Haneke, winner of the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes and multiple nominee at this year’s Oscars (Best film, best foreign film, best director, best screenplay and best actress for Emmanuelle Riva), opens with police breaking down the door of a bourgeois Paris apartment, where they find a corpse. Haneke then explores the months leading up to this moment with the story of an elderly couple, Anne (Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant).

One morning, she zones out during breakfast. It turns out she’s had a stroke, which causes paralysis in her right side. The long-married couple finds their life suddenly turned upside down, with Georges forced to care for the hospital-phobic but rapidly declining Anne.

While in his past films Haneke rubbed the viewer’s face in the extremes of violence, perversity and pure human venality, here he confronts us with the more everyday but equally brutal reality of aging, sickness and death. And yet, as the title implies, the film is also a deeply touching portrait of marriage and commitment.

As always, Haneke’s unflinching look at his tough subject is complemented by an austere, deliberate style and an unorthodox, yet masterfully controlled and deadly effective, approach to narrative. With the film beginning as it does, we know where the story is leading. Haneke teases out some moments for unbearable lengths, then skips over important plot points entirely, leaving them to our imagination. And just when you think you can’t handle the intensity, he lightens the mood with a moment of unexpected levity or tenderness.

Though it (mostly) lacks the violence and cruelty of his earlier films, Amour is no easier to watch. Arguably, it’s even harder: while his post-apocalyptic nightmare Hour of the Wolf, for instance, was an all-too-believable portrait of something that could happen, Amour shows something that undeniably will happen to many of us — the loss of basic functions, and human dignity, that come toward the end of a long life, the bitterly ironic circle that reduces an adult back to the helpless state of a baby. It’s enough to make the most positive person give serious consideration to the “live fast, die young” philosophy.

The film’s unrelentingly grim nature is made palatable by the quite amazing performances of the two leads. Isabelle Huppert, so chilling in Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, turns up in a much less intense, though still memorable, role as the couple’s daughter.

There’s no denying that Haneke is a cinematic master. But this is a tough film to watch for anyone with a fear of aging and death — which I imagine is pretty much everyone. It may be about love, but don’t try this as a date flick. ■

Amour opens Jan. 10


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