Oct 8, 2012

NYFF 2012: Amour

Do not be fooled by the romantic-sounding title of the latest Michael Haneke film.
Amour, a masterpiece, is as tough and devastating as any of his other films, and then some. It is an intimate look at the end of life, the ugliness of illness and death, and the devotion of love.
An epic movie that takes place mainly in one apartment, with just a handful of characters, Amour is a film from which it is very hard to recover. Haneke has a streak of the stern educator, who insists on showing the darkest aspects of human nature, as clearly, ruthlessly and devastatingly as possible, in the service of opening our eyes. So Amour, which is about love, may sound like Haneke has softened his stance, or allowed his gimlet eye to cloud. Never fear. He pulls no punches in telling this most universal of stories, the one narrative thread that comes for us all.
Amour's depiction of the bonds of love is beyond touching, it is emotionally devastating.
There is not one scene in this movie that seeks to make it easier for the characters, much less the audience, to deal with the terrifying prospect of decay and death. This is above all, a movie about human dignity. After all, isn't dignity the end result of love? This is borne by the clarity, intelligence, and the profound sympathy with which Haneke depicts the difficult rite of passage of his characters towards death. Yet he refuses to sentimentalize, cheapen, ingratiate, mythify, or gloss over the subject. I'm offended by movies in which people with terminal illnesses decide to have the time of their lives while they wait for death to come. I find them preposterous, deceitful and naive. There may be a lucky few who die in their sleep with a dreamy expression on their faces; most people are painfully conscious of their illness as a terrible burden for their loved ones. Most people are too sick to decide anything, to frail to be in peace. The loss of their capacities, their impotence against their own demise, is a source, not of expectant bliss, but of anger, depression and shame. Amour is a cleansing experience. It redresses the cinematic fallacies of death in the movies, and it ennobles us through the heroic determination of its  characters to cling to their human dignity. It is also, probably, the best anti-Hollywood film of all time in the sense that it subverts the cheapened definition of heroism in movies. You want heroes? You can find them here -- far more heroic and larger than life than any guy in tights -- in two impossibly elegant, beautiful octogenarians, transcendently played by Emanuelle Riva and Jean Louis Trintignant.
The astonishing opening scene shows firemen forcing open the door of an elegant apartment where a death has taken place. Doors and windows have been sealed with masking tape. It's been days, so everyone covers their faces from the stench. An elderly woman's body is found, blue and withered, her pillow strewn with flowers. Next comes a long take of an audience at a concert hall, mirroring us. What we are about to see is a reflection of our own life. Among this audience sits an elegant couple, alert, waiting for the music to begin. They come home bantering courteously. After all these years, he still finds a bon mot to tell her. Georges and Anne are a refined Parisian couple. They have devoted their life to teach music. They live surrounded by civilization: books, art, Paris. They are warm but quaintly formal towards each other, and they quietly enjoy their long lived company.
But Anne has a stroke. The first movement (in this movie the acts feel like movements in a sonata), takes place at the beginning of her illness. At this point, Anne is still lucid, yet paralyzed on one side. It's a scary nuisance, but she is fiercely independent and refuses to be condescended to. She has been to the hospital and makes Georges promise he won't send her back. The movie is about how he keeps this promise.
In the second movement, Anne deteriorates, losing her ability to speak and do things for herself. However, her mind is still painfully intact, and Anne, the most elegant and dignified of women, cannot stand her dependency and the loss of her physical integrity. She is depressed and angry. Throughout, Georges soldiers on, taking care of her by never losing sight of the woman she has always been. He is an intelligent, articulate man, dry and loving at the same time, who honors his promise without complaint, without self-pity or aggrandizement, and without expecting applause, yet with great tact and delicacy towards his wife. No words suffice to sing Riva's and Trintignant's praises. Haneke is not one to spare his actors the discomfort of portraying the most unvarnished truth. Riva and Trintignant rise to the occasion with extraordinary intelligence and generosity, without a trace of pandering sentiment or manipulative emotion. At their age, to portray these characters with such commitment, artistry and dignity is simply epic.
There is a daughter (Isabelle Huppert), who waltzes in from time to time, cries and expresses concern, but is no help at all. Georges hires a nurse who, like many nurses, is equipped with miraculous kindness. But as Anne deteriorates, he needs to hire a second nurse. This nurse is not kind. She combs Anne's hair like a child abusing a doll. She then forces Anne to look at herself in the mirror, patronizing her like a child, falsely insisting that she is beautiful. This incident is appalling: an intelligent, independent woman, trapped in an unresponsive body, at the mercy of an ignorant, indifferent and slightly sadistic nurse. It is a banal kind of sadism, and therefore all the more cruel, since it pretends to pass as care. Georges fires the nurse, and she accuses him of meanness, which is the height of injustice after what he has done for his wife. She also squeezes him for more money. It is revolting, and an example of the kind of harsh emotional violence that Haneke likes to inflict on the audience. But in Amour cruelty is tempered by the grace and thoughtfulness of George's care, by the defiant dignity of Anne, and by the equally unflinching look at the bond between Anne and George.
In the end, Anne's suffering becomes unbearable for both of them. A shocking, violent act of mercy is delivered both by Georges and the director bluntly, but with deliberate care. It is both brutal and civilized, harsh and tender; a beautiful, terrible scene. And so, throughout Amour (as in life, perhaps) we cling to the small yet enormous moments of grace that float like buoys amid the unforgiving waves of suffering. In his last two films, Haneke has allowed mercy and tenderness to take root among his usual explorations of depraved indifference. It started in The White Ribbon, and has fully bloomed in Amour. He happens to be as masterful and unflinching an observer of love as he is of cruelty. Amour is a transcendent film.

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