Movie Review: Amour- Michael Haneke’s Emotionally Challenging But Undeniably Powerful Portrait of Physical Debility and Mental Dementia

Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke has made quite an impact on the world of cinema ever since his film Benny’s Video shocked audiences with his signature callous, disconnected, and extremely raw observations of human behavior. His fixations on violence, repression, and testing his audience’s sensitivities has allowed him to make films that are emotionally and intellectually challenging, such as his critique of voyeurism in Cache or his reflection on ritualistic and cyclical violence in his Palme d’Or winning film The White Ribbon. His latest film Amour is by no means less challenging and is also coming out of Cannes with a Palme d’Or win, which could be considered a professional stamp of pretentiousness for some. Instead of focusing on complex and alienating topics such as violence or sexual repression Haneke transcends his focus to two relatable themes, love and suffering. Focusing on the struggles an elderly couple goes through once confronted with illness Amour becomes a deeply personal, emotionally draining, and intensely uncomfortable cinematic experience. Haneke films are not meant for mindless movie watching or convenient happy endings but for those who can appreciate a stylistic challenge and a conceptually reflective experience and Amour fits well within his already established filmography even if it isn’t as strong as his previous works.

Amour isn’t about the idealistic idea of love cultivated and spread by naïve romantic comedies but about true love that struggles, doubts, and gets severely tested in the face of trying times. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are an elderly couple who are forced to cope with the devastating effects of physical debility and mental dementia when Anne suffers a stroke. The script, which is also written by Haneke, doesn’t deviate too far from its main focus being the relentless pummeling of realism that is involved with elderly degradation. At first it seems as though Georges can handle the challenges as caretaker but as Anne’s physical abilities worsen the pendulum swings back and forth from tenderness to frustration. There isn’t much to the script as dialogue is concerned because Amour acts more like a portrait of the authentic duties involved when you truly love someone especially in light of their obvious slow decay, eventually to the point of putrefaction. Death, suffering, and old age are subjects that aren’t pleasant to contemplate and Haneke throws you into a story between two people that have to confront them for you. It’s a film that will either bring you to tears or will drain you from all feeling, which is the sign of a film that is undeniably powerful and that really is due to Haneke’s signature film style that is observational and minimalist.

In all of Michael Haneke’s films there is this odd use of the camera that can frustrate newcomers because of its continuous stationary placement and because of the uncomfortable lingering shots and minimal edits. This is a style used in all of his previous works, such as the lingering on sexual awkwardness in The Piano Teacher or the voyeuristic intrusion in Cache. Haneke forces you to confront the more devastating and heart wrenching moments in Amour by completing scenes in one shot, whether it’s the daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) trying to figure out Anne’s vocally strained gibberish or Georges trying to sooth Anne’s imagined pain with a reminiscing story about childhood. There are even some instances where certain scenes are uncomfortably unchanged in order to loiter on the mundane nature of the scene while others are abruptly cut short making it difficult to assess the flow of the film as a whole. This tactic is beyond unconventional and has alienated many from experiencing all of Haneke’s work but it is definitely an art form in testing audience’s endurance, sensitivities, and formulaic conventions. While there are indeed some scenes that slow down the impact of the film as a whole, Amour does stay emotionally gripping even if it becomes devastating and overwhelming in the end.

While the filmmaking style and subject matter challenge the audience it is interesting to note that Haneke’s characters are truly human and they make the experience an equally heartwarming one. There is a genuine tenderness to Georges and Anne’s relationship and their bond is felt early on in the film before the incident takes place. Their simple lives are not unlike our own and that is reflected in their familiar conversations and daily habits highlighting that this elderly couple could be any couple and that the events that follow in the film happen to most people. If it weren’t for the delicate, authentic, and balanced performances from both Jean Louis-Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva the entire experimental tone and style of the film would have failed immensely to keep audiences sympathetic to the hard hitting experiences on the screen. Riva especially had a difficult task to make her physical debility and mental dementia believable in its varied stages throughout the film, which become more and more distressing as we see deeply in her eyes the realization of her constant yet slow suffering. And of course Jean Louis-Trintignant shines as his tenderness is felt when his character has the patience to give it and we even sympathize with him when he gets frustrated and apathetically numb. Together these actors connect to show that love eventually arrives to equal suffering as you carry the others burdens with you.

As with all Michael Haneke films Amour is not for the faint of heart because it is not only about the severe testing on the bonds of love but also the severe testing of the audience’s ability to confront heavy subject matter they prefer to ignore. There is no possible way to try and convince people that the film could have any entertainment value because it simply can only be described as a piece of art. Amour is an uncomfortable but necessary portrait of the mental and physical challenges that come with the inevitability of old age and is portrayed humanely by two very fine actors. Anyone familiar with Haneke’s filmmaking style or challenging subject matter will already know that there is a unique balance between the positive and the negative aspects of life, and in Amour there is a constant balance between tenderness and frustration as well as devoted hope and cynical surrender. There aren’t too many films willing to challenge the audience’s emotional endurance or moral sensitivity but that is clearly what Michael Haneke sets out to do and he is constantly succeeding. Amour might not be the kind of film that appeals to everyone but it is undeniably powerful despite also being emotionally draining.

Grade: B+

Note: This title will be released December 19th

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