Saturday, January 5, 2013

Amour (dir. Michael Haneke)

Amour, the French language film directed by Michael Heneke, begins with the fire department entering an apartment that has been locked up with a corpse inside. So we know how the life of one of the two stars ends up. It is inevitable after her little episode that signals she has had a stroke.

What is most intriguing and gives suspense to the rest of the picture is what will happen to her caregiver, her conscientious, loving I suppose, husband. Haneke is a master of establishing relationships with a graceful series of scenes. The two old people have lived with each other for at least forty years. The way the apartment is decorated, the furniture arrangement, the kitchen table set round with two chairs, all these details speak to the regularity of their habits, the comforts of their cultured home. There are paintings of open landscapes and the freedom they imply sit on walls that seem to close in around the couple as they become trapped in their mortality.

The two are dependent on each other. As Anne loses the use of her limbs, Georges boosts her up to a standing position and the two move in lockstep like awkward dancers. Amour is a close study of two intimates who become strangers to each other. Decisions about the end of life come up. Anne has Georges promise her that he will never bring her back to the hospital. You can easily see why. The operation that was supposed to remove the obstruction of the carotid artery was a failure. According to Georges, only 5% of the operations of this type end in failure.

At one point Georges tells Anne about going to the movies when he was young, how the movie made him cry it was so overwhelmingly sad, how he could still remember how it made him cry, it was so sad, but he couldn't remember the name of the movie or what it was about exactly. Even though we witness scene after discouraging scene of a human body breaking down, and then the mind going away, leaving the survivor alone with a breathing shell of the beloved, there is something abstract or archetypal about Amour. It lacks the impact a truly emotionally warm filmmaker would bring to this material.

The film has much to admire. There is a brilliant tiny scene with a mean nurse whose cruelty is vivid and shocking (Haneke's home territory). The subtlety of the use of running water and what it might mean to Georges and Anne (life, dependability, cleanliness, the ability to do ordinary things) is very resonant. Images of things breaking in or trying to get out -- that sense of entrapment -- repeat and add depth and intelligence to what is potentially an emotional horror show.

I think Love is the wrong name for this movie. Haneke recognizes love when he sees it. He is such a chilly director he merely observes objectively what is happening as one person deteriorates and the stronger mate hangs on and keeps caring. I went in to the movie prepared to be moved by the emotional devastation of what happens when a couple devoted to each other through a long life die. But I left thinking, that was a very well presented case study, very artfully done. It did not really touch me.

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