The Austrian director Michael Haneke specializes in wrenching experiences. Movies are not fun and games for him — they are opportunities to disturb, provoke, question and accuse, to expose the dark underbelly of society and strip away the thin veneer of civilization that tricks us into thinking we’re any better or different from animals.
At first blush, Haneke’s latest film, best picture nominee “Amour,” seems to represent a new direction for the director. Most of his films are chilly deconstructions of violence, voyeurism and cruelty, but “Amour” tells a simple, seemingly warm story, of aging, illness, love and death. It focuses on an octogenarian Parisian couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (best actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva), retired music teachers who live in an elegant and art-filled apartment, where they are occasionally visited by their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert). One day Anne becomes catatonic and unresponsive at breakfast; she undergoes surgery for a blocked carotid artery, but the surgery is not a success, and she returns home paralyzed on her right side. She makes Georges promise never to bring her back to the hospital, and expresses a desire to die before things get worse, and she becomes a burden.
As usual, Haneke’s directorial gaze is unflinching: We watch as Anne’s condition deteriorates due to a second stroke that leaves her speaking gibberish and moaning in pain. Georges struggles to get her to eat and drink, and becomes more and more isolated: He stops returning his daughter’s phone calls, and fires the visiting nurse. Because the opening scenes of “Amour” showed firefighters breaking into the apartment and discovering Anne’s corpse on the bed, we have some idea where all this is headed, but there are a few surprises along the way: One especially powerful scene shows Georges losing patience with Anne’s reluctance to eat, slapping her, and then immediately asking for her forgiveness.
Critics have suggested that viewers will see echoes of their aging relatives in Georges and Anne — that “Amour” tells some sort of universal story about aging that everybody can relate to. But the more I saw of Georges and Anne, the less they seemed like real people, and more like the embodiment of some idea Haneke has about the dehumanizing effects of growing old. Trintignant and Riva are both very good, and invest their characters with real humanity, but after the film was over I was struck by how dull their characters were — about how little there was to them beyond their love of classical music, and each other.
The most interesting thing about Georges and Anne is also the most implausible: their baffling mutual decision to embrace their isolation and close themselves off from the world. Georges stops returning Eva’s calls and declines to take her up on her offer to help, and fires the visiting nurse. I have no doubt that there are people on this earth who would make similarly destructive choices, but I reject the idea that there’s some sort of universal lesson to be found in them. Yes, dying is hard, but one of the ways you might make it easier is to call upon your loved ones for help, rather than pushing them away, and maybe contact a decent hospice program for advice and assistance on how to make the end of life more comfortable. I’m not sure why Haneke’s relentless fatalism makes this a better film than, say, Sarah Polley’s similarly-themed 2006 film “Away From Her.”
Haneke’s films often depict cultured people who are undone by some sort of outside menace, such as the upper-class couple in his film “Funny Games,” (which he made twice — in English and Austrian) who are forced to play brutal and sadistic games by two disturbingly polite young men who invade their home. In “Amour,” the outside menace is sickness and old age (though I occasionally wondered whether the film would be more interesting if the disturbingly polite young men from “Funny Games” popped in for a visit), which invade a happy home and leaves death and destruction in its wake. In the end, “Amour” isn’t so very different from Haneke’s other films. It depicts the decline and degradation of a happy couple, and contains moments of surprisingly brutal physical and emotional violence.
I’ve become something of a Haneke skeptic in recent years, but he is an extremely talented filmmaker, and there are many scenes in “Amour” that resonate, even if the film as a whole sometimes made me want to throw up my hands in exasperation. There are some very tender moments between Georges and Anne, such as when he helps her out of her wheelchair, and there are some nice flashbacks and dream sequences — I particularly liked the scene where she plays the piano while Georges watches, and we get a sense of the vibrant and beautiful woman she once was. Even so, I had trouble buying into Haneke’s central thesis — that life ends in suffering, and that little can be done to lend meaning or dignity to one’s final days.
FOOTNOTE: During the screening of “Amour” I attended, I found myself sitting next to a Very Important Man. At least, I assume he was important, because he kept checking his phone. Every few minutes, his little screen lit up, and I would glance over, and see him studying the information on his little device, which included the temperature and other updates on what was going on in the outside world. He did step out at one point when the phone rang and rang, but stopped short of fixing the problem, as the phone beeped several more times. Eventually, I’d had enough, and I asked him whether I was going to leave his phone on through the entire movie, and explained that the flashes of light and beeps were distracting.
“I’m doing everything I can to keep the phone quiet,” the Very Important Man said.
“Can’t you just shut it off?” I asked.
“I’m doing everything I can,” he repeated.
“Really?” I said, since I was imagining a surefire way for keeping the phone quiet, which involved stomping on it and throwing it in a garbage can. Of course, I would never do anything like that — it’s just a fantasy I have whenever I interact with a filmgoer who doesn’t understand that cell phones are not supposed to be seen or heard once a movie starts.
At this, The Very Important Man sighed heavily, but I didn’t hear or see his phone after our conversation, so apparently he figured out how to shut off his phone, despite his protestations. Question: What is wrong with people like this? Are they oblivious to how obnoxious they are, or do they simply not care? Were they born on an alien planet, where such behavior is acceptable? Frankly, I have no idea. But if you can’t sit through a movie without checking your phone multiple times, you should probably wait for the DVD and watch it at home.
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