As saddened as I am by this, I must report that Canne’s recent Palme d’Or recipient, Michael Haneke’s Amour, is one of the most disappointing efforts of the year, especially considering all the hype surrounding its greatness. I realize I am alone here — Editor-in-Chief Clayton Davis and staff writer/film historian John H. Foote have called it the best film of the year so far. Staff writers Joey Magidson and Daniel Ashtiany spoke positively about the film but also admitted to being more than a little underwhelmed. This mixed response proves to me that your fondness or distaste for this film will ultimately come down to Haneke’s style, and whether or not you feel that style enriches the film’s central title and theme, or cheapens it. As you’ll notice from my score, I am in the latter camp. Where Haneke’s previous effort — and Palme d’Or winner, as well — The White Ribbon astounded me with its haunting atmosphere and enigmatic beauty, Amour is an arduous process that seeks emotion in rather disingenuous ways.
From the beginning, Haneke starts off on the wrong foot. Instead of introducing us to elderly couple Georges and Anne in a chronological manner, Haneke takes a lock-stock-and-barrel approach that forces us to pay attention as if he assumed we weren’t going to already. The conundrum worsens when you discover the end result of Amour one minute into the film. Rather than letting the audience plunge into the dangerous unknown with this couple, who face new challenges each day with death possibly inching closer and closer to one of them, Haneke’s flash-forward opening distances the connection we could have made with Georges and Anne had their story organically unfolded in front of us. Part of the problem I have with Amour is that Haneke dictates how we should feel, when we should feel and what we should feel — by doing so he caused me not to feel anything. This artificiality is streamlined throughout the film — the way Haneke uses sound effects, his synthetic expansion of the apartment via an abundance of attention-grabby wide shots, and those close-ups that are positioned in the most unbelievably ostentatious manner possible. By these methods, it seemed as though Haneke was more invested in stylizing his tragic tale than letting it stand by its own merits of undeniable sadness.
Amour‘s plot is a real one for many: an elderly French couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), are retired music teachers who attend concerts together to watch their former students blossom into well-respected musicians. On one ordinary afternoon, Anne’s face suddenly freezes while the two lovebirds are drinking coffee in the kitchen. Thinking it’s a joke at first, Georges goes to shake Anne but she makes no response. Georges leaves the kitchen, goes to get dressed but then notices that the sound of the running tap water has stopped. He returns back to the kitchen and sees Anne fresh as before, face lit up with her usual warmth and completely unaware of her former state of petrification. Anne firmly denies that anything is wrong with her, and acts as though Georges was imagining things. That interaction was confusing to me. Was Anne denying the stroke because she was ashamed, or did she truly feel that Georges was pulling her leg? Haneke’s script makes these automatic assumptions about our connections with these characters right before we even get a chance to thoroughly explore them. The rest of the film deals with the aftermath of Anne’s stroke, which has caused the right side of her entire body to be paralyzed from the face down. Riva does an extraordinary job going through each descending level that her diminishing body finds itself in. By the film’s end, she is nearly unrecognizable and Amour’s makeup team should be applauded for its subtlety in making Anne’s bodily transitions appear so realistic.
Emmanuelle Riva delivers a performance that few actresses would ever be able to pull off, not due to a lack of acting talent but because the vulnerability demanded for this role would be taxing for anyone in that position, especially given such an old age. Riva melts into the role of Anne, and as uncomfortable as it is to watch her transformation into this woman who is on the precipice of death’s door, Riva should be proud of the work she has done in Amour. Is it Oscar®-worthy? Most definitely, but I often found myself wondering if the character by design is typical Oscar® bait. I’d like to watch Riva in other films so I can see if she has a similar star quality that grips just as intensely — I’d hate to think that Riva’s magnificence in the film could be attributed to the power of the role itself, the demanding nature of it that transfixes audiences almost instantly.
Less impressive to me was Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges. I found his imbalance of the character to be wildly distracting. There are instances when he is wide-eyed and confused as to what is happening in his life, unable to think for himself what the best course of action is to help Anne. Other times, he puts on this air of intelligence, fully cognizant and in control of his horrific predicament. More annoying, however, is Isabelle Huppert as Georges and Anne’s daughter, Eva. Isabelle Huppert, whether intentionally following Haneke’s interpretation of the character or not, comes across like a bad soap actress that weeps uncontrollably in a second’s notice. Yes, I don’t deny the tragedy is enough to send anyone with a heart into a fit of tears, but there’s no steady transition between Eva’s feelings. She has very few scenes, and in most all of them she is either erratic or nonchalant, with no middle ground for Isabelle to unearth a genuine character that seems a part of our world. The scene at the beginning between her and Georges is excruciatingly boring, elongated for no purpose other than to show off the cleverness of Haneke’s script. In fact, too often there are drawn out monologues or dialogue segments that uncomfortably distract from the tense story at hand.
Amour has two saving graces: a gut-wrenching performance from Emmanuelle Riva and an unflinching portrayal of the elderly slowly losing their dignity and independence. Haneke’s showy style is what ultimately keeps me from recommending Amour. The film’s highbrow tone diminishes our connection to the characters and their shared hardship, making each framed moment seem rather inauthentic as a result. Am I bad person for never once sobbing during my screening of Amour, never letting the film get the best of my emotions? Did The Impossible completely drain my tear supply? Whatever the answer, one thing is for sure: Michael Haneke’s Amour has all the ingredients of a first-rate drama, but all I could taste was processed material.