Michael Haneke is a director know for his tricks, for being cold and cerebral in his approach to making movies and for shocking those few stupid/brave enough to buy a ticket to see them when he’s done. Amour at least begins by adhering to those traits: the cold open is compellingly high concept, showing the gruesome discovery of long since dead woman entombed in her bedroom by duct tape, and the first shot after the old-fashioned full opening credits is very clever, an audience shuffles to their seats in an old theatre – as if a mirror were being held up in front of us and not a screen – sit and watch a performance as we watch them, an anonymous crowd no different from ourselves.
This though is where the trickery ends, the shot so clever because it establishes instantly that this is going to be a story of real people that are as real as us, in a reality as real as our own. Amour isn’t a projection or a theatrical performance and it tries, with great success, never to purger itself. Instead it’s a secret, it’s a fact and it’s a cold hard truth; one that belies perhaps the brutalist of Haneke’s stories yet, despite lacking even a single drop of blood or bared knife. It’s a tale of love, the cunning tormentor and its tragic tortures.
So then it is a film with a largely literal title; there is no hidden meaning to be found within it. Amour is a French film about love and the reason that its so far from being the feel good film of the year is that it, unlike all other films, depicts a realistic romance. The love that the pair at the pictures core share is palpable despite their complete lack of desire to purport it. It’s not the schmaltzy kind shown shouting up to balconies, or buying a bouquet of roses; it’s quiet, subservient and constant, it’s a comfort. So seeing it so strongly strewn apart by Alzheimer’s or some other such form of dementia is deeply disturbing; this was a true romance and so its death is all the more tragic.
Midway through the movie – in one of Haneke’s slightly subversive moments – the elderly protagonist tells his ailing wife about a time he went to the cinema as a child and saw one of those schmaltzy, romantic period pieces and how its story has slipped from his mind, but the emotions it evoked still never have. Amour is a movie that will likely leave you with both burnt deep into your brain despite you lacking any desire to ever recall them. Though it is the big emotional beats that most will remember it is moments like this that elevate the movie for me, the slight clever commentary that Haneke weaves in amongst Amour‘s authenticity.
Some of these are slight, perhaps to the point of being entirely imagined. That cold open begins with firemen busting down the door to the couples house and the container of every second of the film to follow; then in the next scene when we see them return home they notice that the lock has been broken, probably by some thieves or intruders. This is a wink to the way he has chosen to tell the story. There is a jarring edit midway through the movie, one that jumps us ahead somewhat in the story -major events having taken place outside the apartment – and when we return a character calmly mentions that it has all ‘happened so fast’. This is a nudge that says ‘never mind that now’. Then there is the time someone states strongly that ‘these games, they’re not funny!’. I laughed at the assumed callback, but was alone in doing so. Strangely this sounds like instructions not to read into little lines and flourishes, a hypocritical hidden meaning.
I mention all of these moments – though there are more – because I feel that it is important to know that Haneke is aware of his audience. There are many realistic movies out there, many films that simply seek to tell a story in as straight a fashion as possible and who cares if it is what we want. Haneke though is not so naive, he does everything for a reason. When she starts rhythmically shouting ‘hurts’ the nurse says to pay it no mind, that it is a random word, but Haneke chose it for a reason; to make us uncomfortable. When he shows us elongated sequences of Anna being fed, changed and bathed, this too is for a reason: he is trying to torture us. The film then is in many ways a test: it is trying to see how much we can stand, how long it would take before we would crack and abandon the woman or worse. Hell, let’s be honest; there will come a time during the films lengthy runtime where you find yourself wanting her to just die already.
Sure this sounds horrible, even for a generation raised on horror films, who cheer when the cheerleader is disemboweled, it is damning to wish death on a lovely old lady but this too is accurate. If you, or anyone you know, has had a loved one diagnosed with dementia then you may hear them say it: ‘In a way it’s kind of a relief’. Seeing a super villain shot out of a plane in an action movie is swell, but just like film love feels fake in comparison to the real thing the catharsis from that death simply can’t compare to one in real life, to putting a stop to such profound suffering in one you love.
The film then has something of a happy ending despite the traumatic events that lead up to it, but it definitely is a moment that requires some deeper analysis ( which will be somewhat spoilery, and thus in white). The man smothers the pigeon with bedding, then holds it close before apparently ‘setting it free’. Then, his house in order and his sweetheart now sated, the gent gets up from his makeshift bed ( which is never seen in the opening) and walks out the door after his wife, following in her footsteps as many real life widowers do. The true and final showing of his love for her.So don’t let the idea of it being about dementia put you off seeing this film, because yes it is depressing in some ways but in others it is rather uplifting.
Yes you’ll see this film and think “Fuck, I don’t ever want to get old.” but at the same time you’ll feel some jealousy for this pair, who found each other and felt this good love for so long before it all went bad. Yes, it may hit a little close to home for many men and women out there, but then again it’s supposed to. Haneke wants you to hurt, but he’s not a sadist, he is simply being accurate; life hurts, love hurts and so Amour hurts too and strangely in the same way. After describing the average day in his new life with his new wife the protagonist remarks: “but nobody needs to see that.” This is a strange thing to say; at once referencing the fact that we don’t get to see these exact things and the fact that through this film we see so much more than we ever normally would of what is usually such a private struggle. That he is able to get this authentic an emotional reaction from us using only a handful of actors and a single apartment, that’s one of the greatest tricks this so called ‘cold’ director ever pulled.