An elderly couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, on-screen for the first time in years) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), is introduced to us at their routine family outing to The Théâtre des Champs Elysées. Both retired music teachers, they lead a comfortable lifestyle in a magnificent Paris apartment, among the shelves full of books on their apparent favorite, Franz Schubert, until one day, Anne stops reacting to her husband’s comments, and spills her breakfast tea. From that moment on, they have to share their home with affliction.
Those of you who have seen at least a couple of features from the unequivocally great Michael Haneke should be able to envision his latest, Amour, shot by shot before even laying eyes on it. It is detached, cerebral filmmaking at its finest: without skipping a beat, the director soberly captures the psychological and physiological landscape as it undergoes severe changes. Distilling Haneke’s habitual realism of the most austere variety are dream sequences of George being strangled and his delirious hallucinations. The “love” in the title alludes to the distance between humans closing in, while death is presented as the ultimate intimacy. Haneke details Anne’s physical demise as she is being gradually reduced to mere flesh, the last spark of life bottled up in her eyes. The ailing woman wets her bed and babbles and bellows; Georges, in the meantime, tends to her to the best of his ability: he gives her foot massages, changes her diapers, and feeds her oatmeal that trickles down her face. And then, at last, he slaps her.
The agonies of senility are commonly hushed up as taboo and thus rarely committed to film. The titular “love” could have been replaced with any other abstract concept: life, death, religion, art. All these notions, previously––and seemingly––packed with importance, are stripped of their meaning by the slow act of dying, which is essentially an act of losing one’s self. Over the years, Adorno’s famous quote about “poetry after Auschwitz [being] barbaric” has been time and again tweaked and elaborated on; we wonder, in fact, whether faith in humanity, culture, much less God is even possible in the wake of Alzheimer’s, dementia, brain damage, or any kind of illness that entails deterioration of the mind. Religion normally condemns fault-finding, and grants a peaceful afterlife in exchange for humility. But is there peace for body, irrespective of soul? Romeo Castelucci’s iconoclast On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God, in striving to answer this question, plainly out-brutals and out-grims Haneke’s endeavor by a mile, when torrents of real feces, scored by the sounds of the helpless son sobbing for his disabled father, flood the stage. Afterward, the darkness falls, and the image of Christ emerges. Can there be a Christ, though, after the flood of shit?
It might easily be the most painful subject to dwell on. No matter how shielded from our mortality by numerous defense mechanisms, even the serenest of us struggle to come to terms with the inevitable prospect of no longer being ourselves someday. The issue just cannot be dealt with the way Haneke does it––in a matter-of-fact, cold-blooded fashion, so that each frame screams art and invokes appreciation. His audience is not for a moment allowed to forget they are watching nothing short of a masterpiece. It is an ultimatum, really: either you acknowledge that, or you admit to your own insensitivity. In Amour, one of the first shots is that of a corpse––it is brief but unmistakable; long enough for us to peruse the decomposing flesh, it is then, for a calculated effect, interrupted by the title card: Love. For a filmmaker as unapologetically brainy as Haneke, cinema remains but an equation, a mathematical problem to solve. Take, for instance, the couple’s last evening of peace before the slap: Georges tells his wife how beautiful she is, as if he had to spell it out rather than just think to himself. The line comes out all too convenient as it foreshadows what is bound to happen in due course, with absolute disregard for subtlety. The supporting cast, too, enter on obvious cues only, it seems, to fulfill their name-checking obligation; the whole effort feels clockwork-precise, yet oppressively labored. I will not spoil the ending for you, but I cannot help but note how literal and brazen a conclusion Haneke brings us to.
In view of his characters’ occupation, the filmmaker indulges in music-related subtext. Anne, so far only half-paralyzed, meets her former pupil, now an accomplished pianist (Alexandre Tharaud, a real-life musician); it is one of her last, fading moments of clarity. She asks him to play Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Op. 126, his final piano piece (the word bagatelle literally means a “trifle”). Beethoven, already deaf by that time, composed it two years before he died, and it fits the milieu like a glove. Upon finding out his illness was beyond treatment, Beethoven refused to leave home for the rest of his life. Amour, accordingly, is Haneke’s most claustrophobic affair: out of fourteen credited actors, we get to know properly but two, both largely confined to their apartment. The rest, including Isabelle Huppert as George and Anne’s daughter, simply flash by.
The film makes use of Beethoven’s music, but, sadly, contradicts its very spirit. Despite his dire condition, the composer never failed to find room for hope and elation, whereas Haneke denies his characters either, and chooses to portray them––with rigor and finesse––growing apart: emphatically polite at the outset, they slowly but steadily slip into altercations, soreness, and mutual guilt. Haneke is an unrivaled pro when it comes to these aspects of human nature; he is, however, tragically unreceptive to devotion, affection, and nurturance––those are hinted at, never fully realized. The narrative is steered by Georges’ promise not to send Anne to a home, which he, of course, keeps, since the promise is the backbone to Haneke’s script.
The inscription on Schubert’s tombstone reads, “The art of music here entombed a rich possession, but even fairer hopes.” Although a self-proclaimed admirer of Schubert (see The Piano Teahcer), Haneke would hardly bother to mine people for “rich possessions,” or bestow “fair hopes” upon them. So all he is left with are human remains to be buried.
Translated by Anton Svynarenko.
Boris Nelepo is a film critic based in Moscow. He is Editor-in-Chief of Kinote online film as well as Contributing Editor to the film magazine Séance.