Don’t be fooled by the possibility of a kinder, gentler Michael Haneke. It would be easy to let down your guard given the title of his latest, gruelingly good film, Amour, and the release poster’s image of a beautiful, aging woman’s face cupped by loving hands. But Haneke has made a decades-long career out of crafting haute horror stories, and old habits die hard. As do the habits of Amour’s octogenarian couple, struggling to hold on to routines as if that could stave off the inexorability of death.
Set almost entirely within the confines of the pair’s Paris apartment, Haneke’s latest Cannes-winning film centers on Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) as she confronts her slow demise from stroke and dementia and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) accepts the crushing task of serving as her caregiver.
Haneke’s films are a tough haul—icy in their austerity and remove, fueled on expertly modulated tension and dread. And yet for anyone who likes their films served cold à la Stanley Kubrick or David Cronenberg, Haneke is irresistible. You stagger out of each one mopping the sweat off your brow, which helps cover the residual embarrassment over screaming out loud in that one scene. But no matter what punishment he metes out, in a few years’ time, you find yourself running to see his next variation on the theme of “no exit.” Amour is one of his finest, with a premise that is pure Haneke. Two people trapped in their home, fighting a battle they’ve already lost—he’s always played with notions of choice and control, and sets up his films like exquisite experiments to see how his test subjects react to having neither choice nor control. Plot exists only in service of provoking and revealing character: What will they do? What would you do?
A master at creating claustrophobic atmosphere, Haneke takes particular delight in filming families under siege. They’re either curdling from within (as in The Seventh Continent, focused on a family suicide pact) or under attack from without, with assailants including jovial murderers in tennis whites (Funny Games), and whoever is delivering grainy surveillance-style videotapes of a family’s daily activities to their doorstep (Caché). His audiences fare little better; Haneke both taunts and titillates viewers, and turns us into queasy accomplices by dint of our voyeurism. “I’ve been accused of ‘raping’ the audience in my films, and I admit to that freely,” Haneke told The New York Times in a fascinating profile. “All movies assault the viewer in one way or another. What’s different about my films is this: I’m trying to rape the viewer into independence.”
With that, Amour opens with the usual slap in the face. Firefighters batter down a door to find a dead woman laid out on the bed like an elderly Ophelia, flowers wreathing her face, her mouth a long grey stitch. By starting with the dénouement, one might think Haneke has scrambled any sense of suspense. Quite the contrary—we will sit frozen for the next several hours with clammy hands and a rising sense of dread. There is little worse than waiting, powerlessly, for the inevitable.
Great films about old age are often cast in soft, sepia tones of regret—see Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, and the too-infrequently seen masterpiece that was the inspiration for Ozu’s film, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow. Haneke’s film is a flintier thing, but no less powerful in its emotional impact, perhaps because Amour is an unusually personal work for Haneke—an homage to the director’s elderly aunt, who suffered from agonizing rheumatism and begged her nephew to help her end her own life. Haneke refused, and then rushed her to the hospital after her first failed suicide attempt; on her second, two years later, she succeeded.
Haneke has always been obsessed with the human cost and context of any given death or act of violence. What exactly have we lost? He lays it out in swift strokes. After the film’s brutal overture, Haneke cuts back in time to follow Anne and George coming back from a concert. Retired music teachers, they are the cultured, bourgeois sort the director most loves to toy with, so it’s no surprise when they discover someone has attempted to break into their house. The audience shudders through a frisson of fear—not only are Georges and Anne the prototypical Haneke mark, but the incident echoes that first home invasion and the meticulously arranged corpse on the bed. Georges is initially alarmed, Anne less so, and, unburdened by the cruelties of dramatic irony, they leave behind the incident and go to bed. The next morning, over breakfast, Anne suddenly freezes, her face blank and unresponsive to Georges’ entreaties. Something has clearly gone wrong, but Haneke doesn’t reveal what, exactly, until later—he keeps us fixed inside the disorienting moment with Georges as he stares into a familiar face gone suddenly, completely strange. It’s a measure of the couple’s years of cozy intimacy together that, after an initial panic, Georges thinks she is playing a prank on him—why else would she fail to respond the way she always has?
This uncanny scene reveals the intruder into Georges and Anne’s lives is an existential one, nothing less than time itself. And in casting two greats of French New Wave cinema, Haneke amplifies that sense by tapping into both their formidable talents, and audiences’ memories of their lush and beautiful youth. Riva delivers an amazingly physical performance as Anne loses movement, language, and memory and Tritignant traces a parallel emotional trajectory from compassion and fatigue to terror and rage. Alongside these performances are echoes of Riva’s most well-known role in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, an actress whose Japanese lover tells her, “You are not endowed with memory.” And Tritignant brings images of his widower in A Man and A Woman, struggling to move out of the past. The actors’ own histories turn up the sound on what Anne and Georges are losing—along the death march, Haneke lets us glimpse Anne’s radiance and charm, Georges’s moody sensitivity and kindness.
Anne and Georges are not alone, ostensibly. Isabelle Huppert (formerly the torturing and tortured protagonist of Haneke’s The Piano Teacher) bursts in several times as the couple’s daughter, worn down by her own troubles and too frayed to be of much help to her parents. And there are nurses, but eventually, Georges dismisses them, and the film descends into a dark pas de deux. Even the act of helping Anne out of her wheelchair becomes a fraught embrace—from the first dance at a wedding, so too this last one in the cold of old age.
Haneke’s dispassionate eye captures it all. The static camera, impeccable composition, and lack of incidental music provides a framework that mirrors Anne’s own fortitude in the beginning and supports the emotional ferocity of the film towards the end. The word “dignity” is not uttered, but the film seems preoccupied with it—this concept central to so many moral and ethical debates, and defined by none of them. Georges comes home from a funeral to find Anne out of her wheelchair, sitting on the floor by an open window. “Forgive me,” she says of her failed suicide attempt with love, sadness, and a shocking politeness. “I was too slow.”
Late in the film, Georges tries to stop his daughter from seeing Anne. “None of all that deserves to be shown,” he says. An interesting line given the camera’s unblinking gaze on Anne and George’s disintegration—and given what it refuses to show viewers. Who is playing that music? Who turned off the water? What is Anne saying as she goes around the corner? Things are always happening beyond the frame, and in the picture are things we’d rather not see.
Haneke is a provocateur, but a profoundly moral one. This time, though, we aren’t being confronted by a buried secret of injustice, or with Hollywood’s attitude towards violence, or with the ethical rot of a village before the Nazi years. Haneke makes complex films, but they aren’t always subtle ones, and his critiques of violence have been faulted for attempting to tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools. But with this, he may have made his best horror story yet, because for many, what is death but a horror, and love our only thin, fallible armor against it? As Haneke reminds us from the very beginning, our demise is a forgone conclusion. What else is there to do but live and love anyway?