“Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.”
The best films about love are the ones that hurt the most. Not to say that a few romantic comedies don’t drop a glimmer or two of hard hitting truths, but love is just as much a feeling of pain as of warmth and tenderness. Love stings like a bee in the spring and comforts like a thick blanket in the winter. It’s an oxymoronic human emotion because of how detrimental it is to the psyche and how absolutely special and irrefutable it is too. Movies allow us to vicariously experience the sensation of love, in all of its positive and negative forms through the development of two characters. We see the plot points line up from the moment they first meet, we gush when they first kiss, we perk up when they first make love, we start to become fearful when they have their first fight, we deflate when they break up, and we cry and smile with joy when they finally come running back to one another, wrapping their bodies around one another while a Celine Dion or Aerosmith song plays accordingly.
Michael Haneke’s Amour is not this kind of movie. This is not a movie that you take the girl/guy you like to go see. This is not a movie you watch on a Saturday night when the movie channels are clogged with nonsense, nor is it a movie you watch when a distance or rift forms between you and your partner. In fact, there are few situations that warrant a viewing of Amour, but it is a film that is a must-see, undoubtedly. It’s a torturous, but immensely simplistic and realistic portrait of love as a force of destruction. A tale of love so deep, bound by many years of emotional verve and radiance; the most romantic moments come when the film is at its most painful. We watch two people not fall out of love – that is nothing new – but rather we watch their gut wrenching progression through a period of old age that could only be possible because of how much these two people adore one another. All of luminosity of newfound romance has long passed, and their lives are being hacked away by love. Haneke perfectly illustrates how this is a kind of love that we should all strive to achieve, and be lucky if we ever reach it, but presented within a situation that will assuredly be envied by no one.
French veterans Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play Georges and Anne, an elderly married couple whose lives are thrown into disarray when Anne has a paralyzing stroke. Well into their 80s, this makes everyday life difficult for both of them and it just becomes worse and worse as Anne struggles to recover. Over approximately two hours, we watch these two people fight to see a purpose for all the pain they are enduring together. At this age, can all of the sacrifice on Georges’ end be worthwhile to save Anne, who’s all but grown accustomed to the fact that her body has been irreversibly crippled? It’s a question without a right or wrong answer and can be endlessly defended on both sides, this is what makes the film hurt endlessly because we cannot give a definitive answer one way or another. Brilliantly, writer and director Haneke provides us easier moments of happiness, light humor, and gentility but quickly darken them with tear-inducing segments of mental frustration, justified negativity, and humanic deterioration. Depressing films such as Amour are rarely preferable by the average moviegoer, but they’ve become a generalization of film that I appreciate very much, and Amour is definitely the kind of film that likes to kick you when you’re down while also extending a helping hand. Haneke succeeds in making Amour heart-stoppingly surprising as well, a feat that relates directly to the model of which Haneke used to create the film: Life – a force that is consistently very surprising, oppressing, and powerful.
What the Austrian filmmaker also achieves is mining phenomenal performances from his two leads. French New Wave breakout Trintignant proves that age has no bounds and delivers a very lived-in, naturalistic performance, while Riva’s intensely physical portrayal of Anne is a tour de force to say the least. Riva – who scored a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her performance – falls apart, piece by piece, over the course of the film and some of her finest moments are when a crippled Anne is juxtaposed with a healthy Anne from some of Georges’ memories. There are few on screen deteriorations of the human body and soul that are comparable to Riva’s performance here, in fact there’s a little voice in my head that keeps saying, ‘And the Oscar goes to…Emanuelle Riva.’ While I’m not convinced that Riva isn’t a long shot to win the statue, I would be thrilled if the talented French import scored come Oscar night (she would become the oldest Oscar winner of all time, she’s already the oldest nominee).
One of the biggest critical comments about Amour is that it was a surprising project for Haneke. Was it really? I’m not very familiar with the man’s work, but I have seen Funny Games (the old, and parts of the new) and I’ve heard a great deal about Cache and some about The Yellow Ribbon and I know that the director specializes in pain and emotional hurt. Amour may not have the physical violence that his previous films have, but it has enough domestic, romantic, emotional, and mental destruction to spare. It’s a draining film, that is for sure, and not one that I probably should have sandwiched between Arbitrage and Beasts of the Southern Wild when I sat down to watch it for the first time. Yet, in the time since, the effects of Amour have remained and, at times, even continue to torment me, producing a wariness of growing very old and an internal plea that my partner and I share a love as strong as the one on display here. This may come off as conflicting, but you will see – as the film continues through it’s third act – that a love like the one between Georges and Anne is as strong and as genuine as they come; the film would not resolve the way it does if their love was any weaker. Haneke built these characters out of reality and you believe their struggle, their pain, and their destruction at love’s hands because of the performances given by Tritignant and Riva.
In French, ‘amour’ means love, and Haneke’s titular decision is one of perfection. In France, it’s an aptly and simply named cinematic production. But, here in the States, we are luckier because the foreign, untranslated title, Amour, is far prettier than ‘love.’ ‘Love’ is not a title for a movie like this, mostly because the love that is examined in this film is not seen in a way Americans see romance, traditionally or cinematically. We are not without our romantic gems, but Amour is of a completely different caliber, feeling, and demonstration. Like Casablanca, Amour is a linguistically transcending title that rings with importance and class; it’s a film and a story that belongs in a completely different era, speaking to a census of people that understand the world differently. Haneke is attempting to bring this feeling back to the present; it’s a feeling that’s becoming so ancient that it’s no longer in keeping with what can be considered love. Now, it’s ‘amour.’
Amour is a film embedded with the feeling of reading an old novel, one that jerks with the fragility of your emotions and refuses to be put down. Where it might not necessarily be something completely groundbreaking – as far as new-ness goes – it is definitely something that I have never felt before. Though the depicted situation is one that I pray I never, ever encounter, I will hopefully be lucky enough to experience the authenticity and incomparable feeling of the bond presented here, now commonly defined as Amour.
Review by Mike Murphy