Michel Haneke is the master of many things. Tension, perhaps most prominently. But more specifically, the self-reflexing examination of tension as captured in moments of realism. For instance, what would you do if an unmarked videotape containing a two hour still shot of your front door, arrived at your doorstep? That’s the tension-laced situation that the characters of Haneke’s Caché spend several weeks of their lives trying to combat. It’s similar to how one would handle two polite teenagers who arrive at your door and refuse to leave. Or how one might react to being pestered senselessly on a subway station.
This, to me, is what links Haneke’s films: the tension of being placed in real life situations, and forcing you to decide what you would do, and how you would do it.
Maybe, but who knows?
Now, while this scene happens rather early in Amour, that isn’t what the film is about. Instead, Haneke presents us with a searing, subtle, delicate examination of a life lived. Or lives, rather. We meet Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) late in their lives; long after he’s become cranky and insufferable, and she’s become used to it. Long after their careers as music teachers have entered retirement and their relationship with their only daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert) has become congenial at best.
We meet them right around the time Anne blankly fails to answer Georges at breakfast one morning, and we stay with them through her declining physical health, and his weakening emotional strength.
But, again, this isn’t necessarily what Amour is about. Trying to find a plot in a Haneke film will only prove to be a grand exercise in futility. Instead, Haneke chooses to sit back and slowly, painfully demonstrate human behavior at its most vulnerable. What’s an appropriate way for a husband to behave when his longtime wife falls ill, especially when (we sense) the majority of their time together was spent focusing on him? I’m not at all sure, but it is nothing short of fascinating to watch unfold through Haneke’s lens.
Jean-Louis Trintignant made a name for himself as a prominent actor of exceptional foreign films of the late ‘60s, early ‘70s. He starred in and damn near stole Gavras’ Z, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s, Granier-Deferre’s The Train and many more. He retired from acting years ago (delivering his last truly great performance in Kieślowski’s Red) but got back in the game specifically to work with Haneke. Thank Christ, for Trintignant’s work in Amour is some of the most devastating acting I’ve seen from any actor in this or any year. I never fully liked Georges, but I always sympathized with him. It’s a performance of remarkable subtly, one that deserves (but, sadly, I suspect, won’t receive) recognition for major awards this season.
Same goes for Emmanuelle Riva, who turns the progression of decay into an unrelenting work of mastery. As Anne gets worse, Riva’s performance gets better. Her work in Hiroshima mon amour and Kieślowski’s Blue proved she could act, but Amour proves she can own.
(A quick note on Isabelle Huppert. I’ve seen Huppert in many films, most notably Haneke’s The Piano Teacher. If she’s given a poor performance, then I haven’t witnessed it.)
Michael Haneke makes different kinds of movies for a different kind of audience. His films are tediously paced, remorselessly patient, shockingly (and hastily) violent, and, in my eyes, always masterful. When I said mature earlier, I merely meant that Amour is, perhaps, Haneke’s most restrained film. Nothing shocks or frightens, but everything scares. Earlier today, a friend of mine described Haneke’s work as a “sleeping pill.” That’s fair. But for someone like me, movies such as Amour feel more like oxygen than Ambien. A