Michael Haneke is a director whose career I have followed intently over the past few years. While never making anything that would slot into my top ten or even twenty favorite films he has produced some intriguing, interesting and original work. Haneke is known for edgy and controversial themes and subject matter, the idea that children are wicked, malicious and evil and often breaking the 4th wall. With that in mind it was with trepidation that I sat down to watch his latest film, Amour. Amour (translated from the French to mean Love) follows an old couple as they both struggle to cope after she has a stroke and her condition deteriorates. While the subject matter may be as usually bleak and depressing for the director I felt that he may have lost his edge or may be softening in his old age. To some extents this may be true; Amour certainly lacks the bite or edge that Haneke fans may be used to. However, this still features most of his trademarks and style and is very much a Haneke film.
Amour is almost an anti-love film or anti-romance film. If you think of most romance films the clichés are that they always show the beginning of the relationship, it’s always about the couple getting together, the passion, the excitement, the sex. The characters are always young, hip and good looking. This is not a romance film through those clichés. This is the exact opposite. Haneke purposely subverts the genre and expectations. That being said, Amour is actually one of the most touching, affecting and beautiful romance films I’ve seen. Truth, reality and the monotony and tedium of the everyday replace Hollywood whirlwind fantasy. The elderly couple never kiss, hug, hold hands and barely touch unless it is necessary. The words “I love you” are never spoken; the only real show of emotion is at the beginning when Georges says to Anna, “you looked pretty tonight”. The romance and love is shown through loyalty, care and devotion. Important and valuable factors often emitted or overlooked in films featuring Jennifer Aniston or Matthew McConaughey.
Haneke’s style is achingly European; using very long takes, static shots, restrained editing, few close ups and scenes and shots that seem like we are being shown nothing whereas actually we are being shown everything. He relies heavily on the absence of action or drama instead choosing to focus on reaction, subtle emotion and thoughtful, lingering character portraits. This film embraces the monotony, tedium, and grim reality of its subject matter. It lacks any soundtrack or score and a lot of the film takes place in silence. While I think the film is wonderful for these reasons, much like some other Haneke films, I’m not quite sure of the point or message he is trying to get across. I was lucky enough to see a screening of this film at a film festival but had I been watching it alone I don’t know whether I would have made it through to the end or given up part way in. I felt the same way about Haneke’s last film The White Ribbon but at least that film rewarded its audience with a reveal or at least hint towards the antagonists, message and themes at the end.
Amour begins with its ending then goes back and works its way towards this foregone conclusion. Knowing the end somewhat softens the blow and disperses any impact that it may have had but it also gives the rest of the film resonance and an atmosphere of foreboding and melancholy. It adds importance and meaning to scenes and moments that would, without this knowledge, be meaningless. The film has an incredibly realistic, gritty and natural style; at points feeling almost voyeuristic or like a documentary. Haneke, as is his style, does at points break the 4th wall and remind us that we are watching a movie, a work of fiction. Not quite as in-your-face as the famous scene in Funny Games, here he hints at the audience through dialogue and camera angles. The film also features quite a shocking moment towards the end that jars the flow and pace of the film and that most viewers won’t see coming.
The end while relatively clear cut for a Haneke film still allows the audience to think and discuss what they think happened and what it all meant. Haneke is a filmmaker who loves to show us the sides of human nature that we would rather ignore. Cache was about Paranoia, Funny Games about fear, The White Ribbon about Evil. Even though this film is called “love” this is really about tragedy and the inevitability of death; something that we can all relate to.