Monday, December 17, 2012

Haneke’s Amour

Death is the ultimate leveler.  It comes for all and unless the pharaohs were right, you cannot take it with you.  For years, one French couple lived a life of privilege and refinement.  However, the diseases of old age will rob them of their dignity and comfort in Michael Haneke’s Amour (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday in New York at Film Forum.

Selected by Austria as their official foreign language Academy Award submission, the Palme d’Or winning Amour is a French language film, set almost entirely in a Parisian flat, featuring two of the most acclaimed French actors of their generation: Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.  At least, Haneke is Austrian.  Nevertheless, it qualifies under the Academy’s stringent rules for best foreign language features.  In fact, it is an acknowledged frontrunner.

Indeed, Amour’s themes and big name cast are distinctly Oscar-friendly, but this is a Haneke film, not On Golden Pond.  The emotions are darker and the sentiment will be hard earned.  Viewers initially meet Anne and Georges during a moment of triumph.  They have returned from a high profile concert given by Anne’s last and greatest music student, Alexandre, which they attended as his guests.  Unfortunately, soon after they return, Anne’s health begins to fail in a dramatic but protracted manner.

The slightly forgetful Georges is rather stunned to find himself in the caregiver role, but he does his best.  It is difficult though, both for him and Anne, as Haneke illustrates in a series of small but punishing scenes.  Of course, the framing device forewarns the audience Amour will end in tragedy, but how the couple reaches that point is the whole point of the film.

They say a good film can never be a downer and that is true, but as accomplished as Amour’s performances are, it probably should be avoided by those prone to depression.  The human frailty displayed by Trintignant and Riva is rather shocking, especially given their indelible cinematic images from classics like A Man and a Woman and Hiroshima mon amour.  Riva’s work is particularly brave, revealing her character’s pain and degradation, both physically and emotionally. 

While it is a less showy a performance, the bitter honesty of Trintignant’s Georges arguably represents the film’s true essence.  Though it is a thankless supporting role, Isabelle Huppert is still perfectly cast as their icily detached grown child Eva.  Classical pianist Alexandre Tharaud also has some touching moments as his namesake, who might be a better son-like figure than Eva ever was as their legitimate daughter.

Compared to some of Haneke’s previous work, Amour is distinctly sympathetic to his characters, but considering the unflinching focus he trains on them, “sensitive” might not be the most apt descriptive term for the film.  Aesthetically, it is also quite distinctive.  Production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos’s flat is elegantly photogenic and cinematographer Darius Khondji gives it all a gauzy, sophisticated look.  Yet, forcing us to bear witness to Georges and Anne’s intimate misery seems to be the extent of Haneke’s agenda.  Recommended with respect (rather than affection) for emotionally robust Francophiles and those who appreciate dramatic showcases, Amour opens this Wednesday (12/19) at Film Forum.