Michael Haneke makes films that no one really wants to see. Whether he's crafting "Funny Games," "Time of the Wolf" or "The White Ribbon," the Austrian writer-director deals with provocative subject matter in a very cool-toned way, asking the viewer to think critically rather than being entertained in a conventionally passive manner. "Amour," the recipient of the Palme d'Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, may be his most masterful -- and most difficult yet rewarding -- film to watch.
"Amour" is a love story. But the drama opens in silence with firemen battering open the door to a locked Parisian apartment. They cover their noses. A neighbor utters, "They had a nurse." And the men open a taped-shut door to discover a woman's corpse, lying amidst flower petals, on the bed. On a black background, as though the film is already in mourning, the title "Amour" appears on screen.
We know this love story will not end well. With an economy of expression, Haneke has introduced the subject in a handful of carefully selected shots that makes us wonder what happened.
The film flashes back to an elderly, cultured Parisian couple attending a piano concert (Alexandre Tharaud as himself). Seeing French icons Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant in their 80s is shocking in itself. The chiseled facial beauty of Riva in "Hiroshima, mon amour" (1959) and Trintignant in "A Man and a Woman" (1966) or "Z" (1969) is frozen in cinematic time. To watch their delicate performances as Anne and Georges -- studying their aged faces and deliberate movements -- is like running unexpectedly into someone you knew years and years ago and searching for the younger person in the mature one before you.
Almost the entire movie takes place in the well-appointed apartment of the long-married pair. Details of their life together slowly unspool. A tender touch on the shoulder reveals just as much about their relationship as when Anne lingers over a photograph in an album, quietly whispering, "It's beautiful, life."
Unfortunately, life can change in a heartbeat. Anne has a stroke. And then a second one. Her declining health and Georges' gallant efforts to care for her make for heartbreaking drama. Cinematographer Darius Khondji's camera captures the painfully slow rhythms of the actors in long master shots. During one of the rare visits of their only child, Eva (the superb Isabelle Huppert), Khondji photographs the awkwardness of the exchange. Eva's self-centered blathering and critical comments contrast with Georges' measured calm and awareness that their daughter and her family are like strangers to them. Such is the modern condition. Eventually the camera lingers over the increasingly difficult daily tasks of caretaking, like a vulture awaiting death. The film becomes a profound meditation about dying and living, about respect and love tested to the limit.
On one level, "Amour" offers a completely accessible story. On other levels, Haneke's signature style lies in wait. He plants subtle hints of impending violence, whether someone is teasingly called "a monster" or when the couple talks about a friend's funeral. Haneke also revisits his concerns of encouraging the spectator to question the act of consuming entertainment. When Anne and Georges attend the piano concert, the camera watches the audience and its reaction, never showing the pianist perform. The director alludes to his film "The Piano Teacher" multiple times, as well as providing a verbal reference to "Funny Games." Most importantly, a key plot point turns on the power of narrative as Georges calms Anne with a story about his childhood. Conventional narratives appeal to the emotions and can function as an opiate. "Amour" is not one of those.
Refuting Jean-Luc Godard's quote that "Film is truth at 24 frames per second," Haneke once retorted, "A feature film is 24 lies per second." With "Amour," the auteur seems to achieve the impossible. Haneke unblinkingly and compassionately presents universal truths, while revealing the illusion of filmmaking and our role as spectators.