Sometimes the value of a movie can’t be explained in the typical words we use to generally analyze. Sometimes a film ascends the notion of plot, story, narrative, or driving action to be something entirely emotional. Something that cuts deeper. This intangible, to me, defines the word ‘Cinematic.’ Like trying to describe the color green or communicate the way a smell ignites your memory. Only the interaction between the viewer and what’s inside that box for two hours can relate what a work of this kind adds up to. Michael Haneke’s films always have a way of usurping typical conventions and penetrating your psyche in these unexpected ways. Even though it’s his “calmest” film to date, no movie Haneke’s made sidesteps conventional discussion more than his newest, Palme d’Or winner, Amour. A seemingly simple story about a former musician whose loving husband stands by her side, gradually watching her wilt into death, Amour adds up to something that reaches from the screen and speaks with you as though it understands your pain. It’s been there; we all have.
Much will be said about this story being about two people facing their mortality. Others may see it for what its title suggests: a love story about the power brought to humans through companionship. Certainly both interpretations are apt. However, for me, something far less fatalistic, darker even, simmers below Amour. These two people are small particles in an enormous ocean of others just like them. They are not special or different. They just exist. No amount of spotlight can make them more than an assemblage of atoms that come together and then burn out. Georges grows increasingly angry and the home becomes a secluded fortress, but this isn’t simply an icy look at existentialism. Amour is that rare honest story that’s at once brutally stark and strangely uplifting. The tears will flow by the time the credits roll. But why? Because we are sad about what’s happening on-screen? That’s part of it. Because we’ve lost loved ones as well? Probably. Because we’re terrified of how truthfully sad humanity really is? I’m not so sure. For as bleak as the film is, it’s never mean-spirited; it’s curiously hopeful. Death only means something to those who are alive, so as not to be dwelled on.
In many ways, Amour faces the truth that humans are nothing more than roaming animals. An early scene where our main characters are two faces lost in a crowded theater (a la Caché’s closing scene) speaks directly to this idea. Yet, the film is moving because of what it says about those last steps before death and how important we are to those in our direct company. Amour’s about that inherent loneliness that comes with growing old and the importance of having someone holding your hand as you pass on. The “Love” of Haneke’s title might be interpreted as that comfort felt between two people who have learned that life’s a whole lot easier with the other person around. I was curious how Anne would have gotten along had Georges not been there to care for her. Would she have disappeared into a nursing home? Would she have died far sooner while left to her own faculties?
Inevitably, people will adore Amour because of how it triggers the memory of their own lose of a loved one. Old age can be a horrifying time for those suffering from illness and those trying to help them. The very last time I saw my grandmother, she was a far weaker version of the strong firecracker I had remembered. She tried desperately to communicate something to me, but only a sound resembling, “Mom… mom…” would come out. I got chills as I watched Emmanuelle Riva’s Anne suffer through the same mumbling struggles. Anne’s nurse explains that this sound is just an easy reflex, not to be over-thought. A poetic act of biology, the word we learn to speak first as babies is also that which we last speak before death. It’s also a reminder of the most loving person many of us ever have in our lives: mom. Watching Jean Trintignant suffer through his own slowing motor skills, I was reminded of something we often forget: growing old is incredibly difficult. Not only do we slow down, but those around us have moved on, living their lives, raising their own children, and dealing with their own baggage. They simply don’t have time to care.
Similar to his work in Midnight in Paris, Darius Khondji’s cinematography emphasizes the reality of spaces by using practical light sources and motivated shadows. In Amour, frames are broken up by doorways and windows as though we are observing from a voyeuristic distance. Haneke’s images have a way of creeping in on his subjects like a small child awake in the middle of the night watching the proceedings from a fixed position nearby. Amour possesses a precise cutting rhythm, only highlighting a subject when they experience one of the human senses. Everything from touch to sight to movement is given it’s just due; reminding us as jaded viewers not to take advantage of the short time we, ourselves, have to exist. The selective choice to cut to medium shots on the characters made me recall Ozu and Hitchcock – specifically Anthony Perkins talking to Janet Leigh in Psycho.
The effect of Amour can’t be easily explained. No doubt, many will try eloquent hyperbole (this will become something for cinephiles to digest and rehash ad infinitum) and others, on the other side, will write about Haneke’s lack of imaginative choices in a “boring” effort. I respect both approaches and both have some merit, but I honestly think each misses the point. Sometimes film experiences aren’t meant to be explained. Sometimes watching the glory of a nuanced performance, shot with the touch of painter, and edited together with the precision of surgeon is just meant to be absorbed without ticking off intellectual checkpoints. Michael Haneke has gone and transformed once again, this time aiming for our hearts. [A-]