The fragile nature of life and the physical decadence that comes with age may as well be considered cinematic taboos. With a filmography defined by cynicism, Amour ascribes to the same exacting and controlling nature that is synonymous with its Austrian director. As the audience bears witness to the withering away of life itself, Michael Haneke’s subject matter is presented in something of an off-kilter manner – rather than the usual numbness that engulfs an audience following one of his bleak exercises, the overwhelming humanism of his central actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, provides a film of sweeping emotional strength.
It’s not to be mistaken that Amour doesn’t fit snuggly within Haneke’s prickly filmography. It’s a film of devastating effect, one that presents the limits of one’s love and commitment to one another. Haneke’s cold precision gives the material the respect it demands – it is material that possesses no flare for sentiment. Slow, agonizing death is what Haneke captures, and to do so with such command is commendable. What gives the film added weight is seeing Emmanuelle Riva, the lead from Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour portray a character of ailing health. Having seen Resnais’ film a few years ago during my freshman college days, Riva’s image always stuck with me – to see her now, remnants of her youth still etched onto her face, is something remarkable. Trintignant as well, who gave an impressive performance in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Red tops that role with his turn in Amour. The presence that both actors bring to Amour may actually undercut some of Haneke’s cold intent – they inject a level of warmth and intimacy that makes some of the picture’s final scenes uncomfortable to bear. Or perhaps that may have been his intent all along.
Despite my admiration for Amour, like much of Haneke’s efforts, my praise is somewhat reserved. As I reflect back on the films of 2012, I find myself latching onto films that reject cynicism – Amour doesn’t quite fit that mold. Am I embracing delusion over the harsh, cruel reality depicted in Haneke’s worldview? Perhaps, while there are films out there that embrace overt sentimentality, one can make the argument that Haneke embraces the polar opposite to an extreme – overt cruelty. His 1997 (and 2007 remake) film Funny Games exposed me to the director’s penchant for abuse. But the critical manner in which Haneke explores his harsh subjects – death, violence, abuse, sexuality, voyeurism, etc – provides audiences with one of the most valuable voices in cinema today. One can only hope that with the surprising success of Amour, more people will be introduced to the grim worldview of one of cinema’s sophists.