March 5, 2013

In the End, We Can Only Hope for Amour

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The power of Michael Haneke’s Amour borders on paradox. On the one hand, this film imparts a quiet, rich message of how art, in all its forms, provides the ultimate respite from the harsh realities in life, like illness, attacks and aging. However, the film so fully immerses the viewer into a suffocating depiction of these realities that the experience of watching it becomes its own struggle. It is not a film I recommend lightly, nor one everyone should see, but it grasps the human condition with such conviction and insight that anyone prepared for its brutality should explore its cavernous depths.

The first scene gets right to the point: Firefighters break through the locked door of a posh, worn Parisian apartment and find the wizened corpse of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) on her bed, hands crossed and surrounded by flowers. From the start, writer-director Haneke shocks us with an image of absolute serenity and truth. Flashback several months back to octogenarians Anne and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) attending a concert of one of her former piano students, Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), and then returning to their apartment, where the rest of the film remains. These opening shots are composed entirely of long shots, as if these two could be any elderly couple strolling the city. As tempting it may be, however, it is wise not to identify Anne and Georges with kindly grandparents you have or had. Rather, it is better to conceive of them as young lovers still so enamored with each other that the perils of age sneak up on them unawares.

This “attack” hits Anne the morning after the concert, when she stares off at the breakfast table, not responding to Georges’ concerns. Her subsequent surgery (not depicted on-screen) renders her right side paralyzed; coping with this abrupt rearrangement of responsibility tests Georges, as well as the boundaries and definition of love (amour). Cheery stuff. There are moments of levity — Anne spinning donuts with her electric wheelchair, or Georges describing his friend’s “bizarre” funeral — that never deign to “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” levels of irreverence, but the mood only darkens as Anne loses her facilities and, for George, his patience.

Film students will likely study Amour for its restrained camera movement, long shots and varied compositions within a single setting (which calls to mind the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu). Amour could just be a clinical textbook example of how to make a soulless and agonizing ‘art film,’ but Haneke’s direction provokes real feeling. Haneke wants us to empathize with Anne and Georges, two characters who may just be us someday in the future. He also, however, allows us to be frustrated with them, particularly the helpless Anne. As Anne regresses into a more infantile state — framed in unglamorous, laborious close-ups — and Georges grows more irritable, Haneke leaves his audience to just witness their acts, free of sentimental cues or melodrama. It’s not forced but real, which is why it’s so tough.

There is a subtle undercurrent regarding the ineffable, healing power of art throughout the film. As cultured, bourgeois Parisians, Georges and Anne appreciate music, cinema, painting, photography and literature, and Haneke includes a scene with one or both of them interacting with each of these mediums and finding strength therein. The most touching, naturally, relates to cinema, when Georges recounts how he was overwhelmed by a film he saw when he was a young boy. “I don’t remember the film … but I remember the feeling,” he tells Anne, who is enraptured by his story. And so the cycle continues: She will cherish her feelings when hearing his story, and he experiences them once again through the act of confiding to his love. When ailments and age impede on a devoted relationship, Haneke reminds us that art can alleviate the painful path to, well, you know, the end.

Amour recently won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and, back in May, the Palme d’Or, the prestigious honor bestowed at the artsy Cannes Film Festival. Any fears that this is a pretentious, boring film should go unfounded; instead, this is an emotionally draining, arduous two hours that will leave no one unscathed. I have not even mentioned the performances of Riva or Trintignant, though their eminence needs no description. But it is Haneke who deserves the utmost praise for his Oscar-nominated screenplay (a Freudian can analyze the meaning of the pigeon and dream sequences to no end) and direction. He put his all into this honest and unflinching masterpiece — though you may just resent him for it.

Amour is now playing at Cinemapolis.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos