Tuesday, August 20, 2013

'Til Death: AMOUR

Michael Haneke is often considered a cruel filmmaker, quick to inflict judgment and trauma upon his characters and, his detractors would say, pain upon his audience. I happen to respond to his brand of icy dramaturgy more often than not, especially in recent years with such cold masterpieces as Caché and The White Ribbon, incisive and powerful investigations of violence and the lingering effects of injustices big and small. Although Amour, his latest film, an Oscar and Cannes’ Palme d’Or winner, is unlikely to change opinions of those who find his work cruel, its sustained deep dive into a painful and uncomfortable human truth is powerful and shattering and as human a picture as he’s ever made. Its subject is unavoidably personal. You’re unlikely to be the victim of a home invasion (a la his twice-made Funny Games), or be the recipient of mysterious videotapes (like in Caché). But it is an inescapable fact of life that some day you will die.

Unflinchingly dedicated to death and decay, Amour is set almost exclusively in the apartment of a comfortable elderly Parisian couple. One day, she (Emmanuelle Riva) falls ill. The scene is devastatingly manipulated, as he (Jean-Louis Trintignant) leaves the breakfast table in high spirits and shuffles back to find his wife staring blankly into space. She’s suffered a stroke. The film then follows her slow descent toward death as her mobility, mind, and faculties dwindle and the light in her eyes, fierce and powerful even as her ability to speak leaves her, painfully dims. He tries to take care of her as best he can, barely able to listen as she pleads with him to simply let her slip away. Impossible, he promises, doubling down on his caretaking, a painful prospect for a man who is himself suffering from the weaknesses and easily exhausted stamina of advanced age.

The film is claustrophobic and the plot’s outcome excruciatingly obvious, never in doubt, the first scene a silent look into the near future as an emergency crew enters the apartment. But Haneke doesn’t let the film lose sight of the couple’s life. Paging through a photo album to reflect on younger, happier times may seem cliché, but so it is. Here, it takes on a clear-eyed, truthful power. It doesn’t become a rosy look back to flashbacks or revelations of final lessons or wisdoms. We remain locked into the inevitable forward march of time. The two of them are retired music teachers. Classical music drifts through the film as a gentle reminder of time gone by, of passions once pursued to great satisfaction. The grand piano sits unused, dominating a corner of one room, the man sitting next to the stereo staring as he listens to a CD while his wife sits immobile on the other side of the wall. Visitors, a daughter (Isabelle Hupert), an old pupil (Alexandre Tharaud), stop by, concerned but busy. The elderly couple’s teachings, their parenting, is already making an impact in the world, ready to move on as they sit cooped up, readying for the end. Dying is mostly a private business, and a final act of love between this devoted couple.

In the center of this film of exacting precision, long shots and steady edits in a confined space, with silence punctuated by unbearable howls of pain and strained grunts as speech is taken from them, is a pair of performances so perfectly calibrated and in such perfect synchronization that to call them extraordinary doesn’t satisfy. Riva and Trintignant, both in their 80s, have each been acting in the movies since their youths. They bring an irrepressible intelligence and forceful sense of history to their roles. (Those faces in the photo album? Young Riva and Trintignant, themselves.) The film may be small, quiet, and spare, but the frightening weight of the picture sits solely in their silence and methodical actions, in their fragile, mournful faces. Haneke captures them with an exacting precision. How often does a film treat death this seriously? Here we seem to be watching death itself, painfully, unflinchingly, slowly, inevitably. So convincing are the performances that, though I was aware of the artifice on some level, when Riva turned up at the Academy Awards this past February, I still felt some small amount of relief.

Haneke’s cruelty here extends only to the painful honesty of the film’s artifice. It speaks uncomfortable and deeply affecting truths. We want our elders to stay because we love them, when true love might really mean letting them go. Amour is about how difficult it is to tell when a loved one has crossed that line, when asking them to stay becomes selfish, when showing love to them means letting them slip away from suffering, and from us. Amour, cold and painful, is full of deep truth. It’s a film of discomfort, of a tough chill that settles in the pit of the stomach and lingers. This is no mere end-of-life three-hankie weeper. Only some overt symbolism and one calculating dream sequence threaten to take the film in that direction. No, this is largely true pain and true love, simple, powerful, austere.

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