Austrian director Michael Haneke has a reputation as an art-house provocateur, a filmmaker who takes a cerebral approach to unsettling subject matter. With impeccable technical control, he uses jolts of shocking transgression to punctuate the slow reveal of troubling implications. No matter how sensational his movies may sound, there is rarely any doubt that he is serious and careful in his intentions. While it's awkward to say that one "enjoys" Haneke's films, he often deals in a sort of disturbing psychological manipulation that appeals to me, and in a manner that I find both compelling and aesthetically striking… and emotionally and intellectually taxing. I don't know if my past experiences with Haneke made me more or less interested in watching his acclaimed 2012 drama Amour. I knew that its subject — the final days of an elderly woman — sounded not only like "no fun," in the most broad sense, but that in Haneke's capable hands it could be emotionally grueling and tough to shake.
Emmanuelle Riva stars, at age 85, as Anne, a music teacher who leads a quiet, modest life with her husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), until a stroke paralyzes the left side of her body, disrupting the long-earned serenity of their enduring relationship.
What Haneke depicts perfectly in Amour is the subtle adjustments within the larger tragedy of the situation. While he shows us very little of Anne's and Georges' life prior to her illness, Haneke finds echoes of normalcy in, for example, the way that Georges helping Anne out of her wheelchair resembles dancing, and, more generally, how embracing has acquired a dire new context. A week earlier both of these gestures would have meant something entirely different. That Anne used to teach music — and with such demanding precision that one of her former students is now a celebrated classical pianist — and now finds her body out of her control is heartbreaking. Haneke draws potent emotions out of the stoic faces of his two actors as they attempt to both accept and mask this cruel new disruption to their cultivated no-fuss dignity. Riva's Anne is locked inside a shell of her former self, requiring invasive assistance despite being temperamentally allergic to anything but the most reserved attention. Trintignant's Georges finds his past temper bubbling up in reaction to what is, partially, a monumental breach of privacy, but more essentially an assault on decades of carefully worn synchronicity.
Haneke being Haneke, however, Amour also features a couple of his typical shocking jolts, and while both moments are justifiable on their own terms, they are also distractions from the subtle observations that represent the movie at its most effective. Georges' overall arc, I think, either goes too far or would have been better served less explicitly. I understand that Haneke wants to show the extremity of the emotional and physical toll Anne's illness takes on both her and her husband, but this may have been one instance in which Haneke's sophisticated edge-lording is less powerful than simply reading the deterioration in Tringntnant's stubbornly intolerant face. As a result, the climax of Amour is distancing in how it reveals the director's hand when I would have preferred for it to lean in to its immersive intimacy. This reaction does make me question, however, Haneke's intentions: as the same director who famously alienated audiences with a specific formal disruption during the intense and horrific Funny Games, maybe Haneke also intended the final act of Amour to cause a similar rift, but I just can't find the reason in it. These choices only mar Amour temporarily, however, and it nevertheless stands as a showcase of immaculately restrained performances and deep empathy.