Tuesday, December 18, 2012


The Art Of Silence And Death, By Michael Haneke

Emmanuelle Riva as Anne, comforted by Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges in Michael Haneke's "Amour".  Sony Pictures Classics


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Tuesday, December 18, 2012

One of the most intelligent and sincere conversations about death and old age I've ever seen on film, "Amour", Michael Haneke's drama, is a careful look at former music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), in their eighties, as they cope with the deterioration of Anne, who abruptly lapses into dementia.  Georges and Anne love each other very much.  They've been married for many years.  Anne's daughter Eva (Haneke alumna Isabelle Huppert) makes several visits to their sparse house in Paris.  Georges' male music student (Alexandre Tharaud), a borderline smug sort, has emerged as a renowned musician who performs concerts worldwide.  Like Georges he struggles with his feelings around Anne's rapidly debilitating condition.

You feel life slowly pass you by in Mr. Haneke's "Amour", a film far more restrained in the biting contempt or punishments the director often has for his audience ("Funny Games").  Georges himself cannot move on with life however, and while everyone in his life, including Anne, is doing so, there's undeniable tension within Georges.  He's uneasy about life -- not necessarily his own -- but with loneliness and the idea that each of the people he loves will eventually be ready to leave and move on and leave him behind.  (I suspect Georges wants to really live but he's not being allowed to.)  They have their own families and concerns, and as matters are discussed they appear trivial and banal, reinforcing the loneliness of the caring, dutiful Georges.  Perhaps he wants to be alone.  Mr. Trintignant, France's legend, does fine work both concealing and not concealing his anger, his pain and his burden.

Aside from relatives and friends, the people who visit Georges, like grocery shoppers, generally offer kind words, empathy and good wishes.  "We're very impressed with how you're handling everything," one says.  Georges appreciates the sentiment but looks as if such social niceties further pressure and constrain him.  None of these well-wishers are going through what he's going through, but Georges never becomes self-righteous about his difficult situation. 

"Amour" often plays in flashbacks, underlining memories, beauties and importantly providing a context for the feelings Georges has and for what he is confronted with.  The flashbacks are a safety net for the director, serving as an inoculation from charges of cruelty and meanness.  These affectionate flashbacks elevate "Amour" from rote status to organic, sweet and touching.  To his credit Mr. Haneke displays a gentle hand throughout.  "Amour" can easily be viewed as Mr. Haneke's most personal film and is one of the year's best.

Some of the best moments in "Amour" are when nothing at all is said, when we absorb dimly-lit shots and close-ups of Georges and Anne separately, quiet, wordless, isolated in their fears and worries.  The truth of these moments are captured beautifully.  I felt them.  It's hard not to.  All of the talk around and outside those few, discrete silences add up to avoidance, discomfort or a stark reality.  The inevitable questions ring loudly: how does one "prepare" for death?  And how, if at all, do long-lasting relationships and love prepare us any better or any worse for death?  These and other questions will affect every single one of us, and "Amour" considers them, taking them on in an earnest way.  How, and to whom, do we talk about death?  To our parents?  To our spouses?  When do we talk about it?  Is silence and avoidance the best way?  How do we define and shape death?  Mr. Haneke is aware that death is all around us, and "Amour", which won this year's Palm D'Or at Cannes, is a slow, absorbing crawl to the finish, without being laborious or gratuitous.

There's a suddenness to death, whether in the shocking, traumatic events of last week in Newtown, Connecticut that targeted the very young, or in the gradual decline of the aged, or in seeing a loved one on life support who can no longer communicate.  "Amour" has a heartbreaking look at the latter two but avoids exploitation of very delicate subject matter.  I was struck by the maturity and humaneness of Mr. Haneke's approach.  Early on we see a stark, powerful image, a fleeting shot of finality.  It's a shot that defines the 8,000-pound elephant in the room.  There's respect and dignity in the image.  Mr. Haneke doesn't linger on it.  Maybe because it is too painful to him.  It was jarring to me. 

In "Amour" it's clear that Mr. Haneke takes the subjects of love and death very seriously and wants to engage audiences rather than brutalize them.  Here the torment isn't for the audience but for the characters.  Mr. Haneke's "Amour" is a most unsentimental experience.  There's an austerity and bluntness to this intimate and shrewdly observed film but it is stripped of the loathsome indulgences avid followers of Mr. Haneke expect.  On the subject of death and matters in general though, "Amour" isn't mawkish, it is respectful, beautiful and poetic.  "Amour" doesn't wallow in disease or tragedy, instead it takes us on an adult journey of consideration and pain, contemplation and decision.

The dialogue, some of it thoughtful and riveting, between Georges and Eva form the heart of "Amour".  Their conversations are well-acted.  Mr. Haneke's screenplay gives space and weight to words, to silences and to uncomfortable scenes.  There's real-life identification with what is being discussed by Georges and Eva.  Not too many people who see "Amour" will say that they don't know someone (or is someone) in the position of any of the film's characters.  We know how life will end, and we know what will happen in "Amour".  The only question is, how will Mr. Haneke get there?

Georges's affection for Anne, in the way he speaks to her, particularly in the final stages of the film, is tender and moving.  Death in film is often riddled with clichés, especially when it involves senior citizens.  Death of the aged is filled with bitterness and mocking and dismissed in comedies and dramas alike.  Mr. Haneke offers a touch of that here though solely in a scene via one disagreeable character, a young woman who believes her ability to be an effective caretaker has been questioned.  The usually mild-mannered Georges scolds her.  Throughout "Amour" Georges looks to jettison burdens and people who care.  He is tired: tired of the routine, tired of the niceties, even tired of his daughter-in-law Eva, who is very concerned about her ailing mother. 

"Amour" is an exercise in sensitivity, complexity and tastefulness, a worthwhile and valuable effort in filmmaking.  Ms. Riva makes Anne, a rigidly realist figure, achingly authentic.  It's a stunning, disturbing performance; self-contained but not self-aware.  You never feel that Ms. Riva (or Mr. Haneke) works to solicit your pity.  Admittedly I was frustrated by Anne's growing limitations, even angered by her decline.  The way Mr. Haneke shoots Ms. Riva and the film with his typically fixed camera and lack of edits in scenes offers the only moments when he may try to provoke.  Yet what we see is truth and life staring us in the face, up close and very personal.  Ms. Riva's strong work offers a gateway to the compassion and empathy we feel for Georges, and it resonates unmistakably at the end.

Also with: William Shimell.

"Amour" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association Of America for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language.  In French with English language subtitles.  The film's running time is two hours and seven minutes.  

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