David Beal reviews the Palme d’Or winning film from Austria’s Michael Haneke.
Michael Haneke’s films are often considered punitive or clinical, subjecting their viewers to sober and humorless video-puzzles only to scold them once they’ve reached the solution. His camera is deliberate and efficient, and his movies are wrapped up in discussions of punishment or sadism, something akin to the paranoia of Roman Polanski, but without Polanski’s delight. But the notion of access – allowing cameras in contained spaces from which they are often barred — provides another entry point into his work.
In his latest, Amour, Haneke puts his camera in the apartment of a dying old couple (played by courageous French veterans Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant), and he doesn’t let it leave. At the start of the film, Anne (Riva) has a stroke, and she deteriorates for the next two hours (one year in the film). As she creeps closer to death and total paralysis, her husband Georges (Trintignant) devotes his existence to the minutiae of her care-taking — exercising her, feeding her, helping her on the john, telling her stories. His aid may be borne of love, but it’s love where one party has all the physical authority: violence — intended or unintended, necessary or unnecessary — is always just around the corner.
Georges also controls the permeability of the apartment, granting less and less access to the couple’s concerned daughter and son-in-law, firing a nasty nurse, and banishing a stray pigeon that keeps flying through the window. With a stubborn, almost innocent boyishness, he gradually succeeds in possessing the space of her death completely, turning it into a personal sanctuary. (Haneke controls the space of the frame with equal zeal; this is a movie of doors and walls, carefully placed.) But inside the barriers of the apartment, Amour coils itself — and its viewers — so close to death that a certain kind of life (or love) spreads its fingers over every inch of the frame. The most tender actions in the film become the most aggressive, and the most aggressive actions are magnified, eerily and inevitably, into the most tender. “You can be a monster,” Anne says to Georges. “But very kind.”