2012 has seen quite a few directors leave their comfort zone to try something new, and quite a lot of the time it has paid off. David Cronenberg left behind his body horror traditions to make the brilliantly cerebral Cosmopolis. Ben Affleck set his third film outside of Boston for the first time with Argo. And now Michael Haneke, who is often accused of being distant and nihilistic makes something more humane and heartfelt with Amour.
This will blindside many people, especially Haneke’s fans. And it’s a little ironic that when the director chooses to change course, he actually packs an even bigger emotional punch. Amour doesn’t force a harsh reality onto the audience. It present a harsh reality instead, something that the audience already knows but is trying not to think about. It’s a film that says that the hardest part about getting old is that you have to watch a loved one slowly succumb to the ravages of old age. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but as the title suggests, Haneke tries to show the love that’s at the very heart of a long term relationship.
We begin the film with the police breaking down a door to a stylish apartment, where they find Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly woman dead in her bed surrounded by flowers. Flashback two months, and we find out how she ends up there. Anne suffers two strokes that leave her in a slowly deteriorating state, and it’s up to her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to take care of her.
Jean-Louis Trintignant is sensitive by still unsentimental as Georges. To begin with he’s accepting of his wife’s debilitation and caters for her every need. But as her condition gets worse, his love and tolerance are pushed to what can only be described as superhuman limits. There is one particularly painful scene when Anne starts refusing food and drink. It’s a scene where Georges is truly pushed right to the brink of total meltdown, and yet despite this we still know that they love each other. That’s what makes the scene almost unbearably heartbreaking.
Your heart of course bleeds for Anne, whose debilitation is obviously humiliating. What starts out as a little help with food soon turns into help with toiletry needs. The film is just over two hours long, so her mental deterioration is painfully slow. With every scene that passes, another part of her has been chipped away until all that remains is the mind of a helpless child. It’s hard to say if she’s fully made peace with her fate, because she may not fully understand anymore.
It’s important to point out that Amour doesn’t attempt to emotionally manipulate the audience. Haneke has been known to experiment with emotional interaction with the audience before. His film Funny Games is probably the best example, when a character actually turns to the camera and asks the audience if they want another plot development. But in this case Haneke doesn’t attempt to manipulate how sad the audience feels. Amour is not a typical tearjerker like The Notebook which thrives on manufacturing audience tears. Every tear you shed for this films is real. And yes you will shed many.
In a sense because we know where the film is heading, as an audience we feel prepared for the conclusion, but in the end it packs an incredible punch. The eventual loss is so humane that it is shocking, and feels incredibly cruel. Whether or not it’s humane from Anne’s point of view is certainly going to divide audiences. Still it sticks by it’s central idea that while love can’t defeat death, it can still give some of the worst moments in life a fair fight.
Obviously this isn’t the ideal film to see on your first date, and many will think of it as the feel bad movie of the year. But to think that would be selling the film short. At it’s heart it is a very genuine love story above a love that can’t transcend death, but puts up a much bigger fight than the people who actually feel the emotion. For many it will be unbearably sad, but Amour has to be one of the best films about old age ever made. It’s an uncomfortable watch that will stay with you for a long time, but it’s totally unmissable.
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