You didn’t seriously think that the first review I posted on here would be of an uplifting film in the English language, did you? Of course you didn’t, because you are reading Room Eleven and know how fucking weird and snobbish I am. Please indulge my almost entirely sincere review of a French film about old people dying:
An adjective you’ll frequently hear or see in descriptions of the work of Michael Haneke (and indeed if you read many of the reviews of Amour) is “intrusive.” Amour‘s opening scene—not to mention Haneke’s 2005 film Caché, about the anonymous surveillance of a bourgeois Parisian family—certainly involves a measure of intrusiveness, as you watch while firemen break into a different bourgeois Parisian apartment, here one adorned with the trappings of antiquity (think grand piano, leather-bound books with crinkled pages and ragged covers that more than fill the shelves, a chair suited for daily perusal of Le Monde, and muted upholstery) rather than IKEA-bland modernity as in Caché. But critically, unlike Caché, where the surveillance is done from across the street, in Amour the viewer watches from inside the apartment as the firemen knock down the door. There’s a reason for this: all of the scenes that follow in Amour portray the weeks leading up to this “intrusion,” and you, the viewer, have been inside this flat ever since Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva) returned from a former pupil’s concert. In fact, you learn that you followed them home from that concert, never to venture again outdoors, even though every other character leaves at least once. The firemen find Anne’s lifeless body in the master bedroom, but, as will be demonstrated to you, you have already borne witness to her physical deterioration—the aftereffects of a stroke—and the descent into solemnity and helplessness her husband Georges and others must suffer. (The movie’s revelations involve not death, per se—no shocker, there—but what transpires towards The End for all nearby, and how such trying circumstances expose both our best and worst tendencies.) In that sense, it is the viewer doing the intruding, not so much the firemen. Oddly, however, given the lack of faith in humanity and hatred of bourgeois decadence Haneke has exuded in Caché and supposedly his other films (none of which I’ve seen, unfortunately, besides Caché), you sense that you are there less as an intruder and more as an observer of a life well-lived approaching its final stations. Certainly, there is an element of intrusiveness to your observations of the couple: you have no relation to them, though you will be observing some of the most painful, private moments that two human beings can share. But, you suspect that Georges is too consumed by the process of caring for and comforting his dying wife to notice your presence, while you sit passively in awe of the strength of this marriage of equals. It is because Haneke places you so close spatially and emotionally to this relationship, however intrusive this placement is, that you might come away with more faith in the human spirit than you thought possible from one of his films, even if that’s not a high standard to meet.
I mentioned that aside from the sojourn home from the concert virtually every shot is framed from inside the apartment, with predictable claustrophobic effects. It’s no surprise that the apartment’s doors and windows feature prominently in the film: in a relatively early scene soon after Anne’s stroke, Georges and Anne agree to keep the bedroom door open after Georges leaves her bedside to read in the living room. As Anne’s decline continues, it is impossible to not notice the apartment’s doors and windows opening and closing. Despite the fact that you spend virtually two hours inside their apartment, you don’t have as good a handle on its layout as you might think. There is a central room that separates the bedroom from the living room, but its doors do not open until the very end, as if there had been a wide gulf between the dead and the living. There is a spare bedroom, mentioned in passing early on, but similarly unseen until late in the film. To me, this suggests that your observations of Georges and Anne, are incomplete, just as your observations of their apartment are. Indeed, with all that Georges and Anne have shared with each other, neither of them know the other completely, as demonstrated by Georges’ recollection of a moviegoing experience in adolescence that Anne says she had not heard. All of the doors and window shades are opened in the film’s final frames, and the feeling is one of fleeting memories: whatever grasp you’ve had on Georges’ and Anne’s lives, it is not something onto which you can hold.
Twice in Amour a pigeon (I feel incredibly pretentious writing this) enters the apartment, but while in the first case Georges bats at the pigeon in an effort to (successfully) shoo it out the courtyard window, in the second Georges traps it before releasing it. It is his second encounter with the bird that serves to me as a perfect summation of Georges’ approach to his wife’s illness: Georges will do what he can under his own power, while understanding that the end result is something over which he has no control whatsoever. He can do his best to assuage the sadness we associate with death, but he cannot stop it. Georges indicates this sentiment in a conversation with the couple’s daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who is distraught and whose idea of caring for Anne clashes with her father’s. Eva isn’t wrong or blameworthy because of what she wants for her mother. It’s just that, after a certain point, only Georges is cognizant that there’s no reversing the process of age. His concern is in providing enough care as the inevitable ticks away.
There’s no doubting the power of Trintignant and Riva. Dana Stevens of Slate said on a recent podcast that she thought of their performances more as a singular performance than separate ones, and I can’t say I disagree. Their characters are inseparable even as death rips them apart. Both Trintignant and Riva are more or less legends of European cinema, even if they aren’t familiar to you or me: he appeared in Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Kieslowski’s Red, she in Hiroshima, mon amour and other New Wave titles. (Huppert is also well-known, having appeared in movies by Claude Chabrol and Haneke himself.) The actors’ lengthy and successful careers are one final counterpoint to the concept of “intrusion.” Halfway through Amour, Anne leafs through a photo album, in which real-life snapshots of the younger Trintignant, Riva, and Huppert are pasted. “So long. Long life,” murmurs Anne. The photo album doesn’t tell the whole story of Trintignant and Riva, nor does Amour of Georges and Anne, but we’re not intruding so much as looking at the last photo in an album before it closes.
(Note: Amour was nominated for 5 Oscars on Sunday: Picture, Director, Actress, Original Screenplay, and Best Foreign Language Film, winning in this last category. As I intimated in our live blog, I would have voted for Haneke for director given the 5 nominees, just ahead of David O. Russell, but had either Kathryn Bigelow or Tarantino been nominated for their movies they would have gotten my vote. All this just to get an idea of what I thought of Amour compared to some other movies up for awards this year that normal people probably saw.)