Having just turned 70, Michael Haneke appears to be turning a new leaf in his abrasive view of humanity as being, for all its attempts at civilization, barely out of the jungle. This view might in the end be correct, but Haneke’s insistence on it and his habit for mechanistic and even sadistic methods for dramatizing it can be the work of an artist who’s effectively pinning down his characters like a butterfly collector securing his possessions to a board. In his displays of complete technical and dramatic control of his materials, Haneke accentuates the impression of an über-controlling artist who allows no oxygen into the room.
The fascination of Amour is that the oxygen tank is turned on by Haneke this time, although this or any other medical device won't be enough in the end to save the life of dying piano teacher Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who’s patiently and meticulously cared for in her Paris flat by her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). A film that permits no ironic reading, Amour is about the response by one loved one toward another in dire conditions, in which unconditional love is called for and acted upon.
At the same time, Amour is a bit too prim and proper, too buttoned-up, too designed to win end-of-the-year critics awards, too elegantly turned out to please. It’s a kind of art-house movie parade, presenting all of the items that would directly please the Laemmle Theatre’s target audience (of a certain age, cultured, urban, old enough to recall Trintignant and Riva as A Man and a Woman). Haneke has made an honest film without sensationalism, but it’s also quite strategically programmed, down to the lust in its bones to win yet another Palme d’Or, which it did on Sunday.
The great, moving entity at the center of Amour is Trintignant, whose first perception that something is wrong with Anne—she simply shuts down for a minute or two over breakfast—produces not concern so much as peeved anger, as if she’s playing a game and he’s the butt of a joke. It’s a fascinating choice, and true to the emotional temperature that caregivers of ailing loved ones often feel. These are genuinely cultured people (like their audience), regularly attending concerts, conversing about the new biography on conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, whose last name is casually mentioned in the same way that NBA fans would mention Kobe. Their shelves—always an important, revealing detail in Haneke’s dramas—are bulging with music and art books, literature, and CDs; the living room remains centered on a grand piano which is slightly out of tune. Yet this life of culture is about to retreat to the background as health matters become all-consuming.
Their only daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is genuinely concerned that her father is taking on too much, but she may or may not know that caregivers who give their all often die before those they’re caring for. Eva grows increasingly perplexed at Georges’ efforts to control the situation completely (much the same way Michael Haneke directs his movies), down to locking the bedroom door so nobody can see Anne in her decrepit state. “You can’t stop me from seeing her,” Eva correctly tells him, and the movie can’t stop the viewer from seeing Anne in her final phase, verging on death, and finally refusing even to take water.
Amour doesn’t end in murder so much as relief (Rick Santorum’s response, if we care, would be outrage, confirming his worst fears about those suicidal Dutch). Haneke makes too fine a point of it by having Georges handle an errant pigeon which has flown into the apartment not by killing it (as would have happened in an earlier movie by the maker of Funny Games) but by gently capturing and freeing it. The symbolism is obvious, the gesture is telling, even close to a direct message: I, Michael Haneke, am no longer into torture. At least, not until the next movie.