Few filmmakers inspire more of a love-hate reaction—or an amour-haine one—than Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke. Haneke's typically nihilistic oeuvre (including Funny Games and Caché) is marked by a cold, austere style, a withering gaze on the human condition and the indifference of the universe. So when Haneke puts out a film called Amour, it's fair to suspect that the title will be laced with irony.
So it's no surprise when the title appears over a shot of a corpse matter-of-factly rotting in a dim, musty-looking bedroom. Yes, in the film's vision, this is an image that says "love," but it's not exactly a couple romping in slo-mo towards each other through a field of gently waving wheat. For Amour is about two elderly people, joined in marriage, who must at last face the abyss of death and, thereby, the inevitability of separation. Haneke flashes back to the turning point: a seemingly ordinary morning that darkens when Anne (Emmanuelle Riva of Hiroshima mon amour) has a stroke at the breakfast table, sending her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant of The Conformist) into a quiet panic. Like the prophecy of an Ancient Greek oracle, the moment encapsulates the horrible knowledge of impending death. One moment Anne is there; the next, she is gone—gone blank, effectively (if temporarily) wiped out of existence. Anne returns to consciousness, but the die has been cast—the two hours of screen time to follow will tell the story of her decline and the emotional shock waves it sends out to those around her (including a grown daughter played by Isabelle Huppert).
It's an anguished film, a series of gut punches not for the faint of heart. Haneke's narrative understatement allows Amour to be read in at least two ways: as a tragic love story—which it certainly is as Georges devotedly cares for Anne and struggles to honor her wishes, and as an existential horror story about the truth of oblivion. The former, sentimental reading locates meaning in love, while the latter implies that since physical and emotional pain—and death—are givens, sentiment is a pointless response to the cruel meaninglessness of existence. That Haneke was partly inspired to make the film by the death of his mother (and that, at seventy, he's no spring chicken himself) doesn't necessarily tip the scales one way or another, and it doesn't much matter to the way a viewer takes the film. What does matter is that Amour is potent as drama, but not especially useful in terms of insight. It's not reflective about anything we don't already know all too well, and it doesn't allow in any light, two pitfalls that Sarah Polley avoided with her similarly themed Away from Her.
What makes Amour (apart from Haneke's supreme control as a filmmaker, which should not be taken for granted) are the masterful performances of Trintignant and Riva, which carry the full weight of their lifetimes of experiences as actors and human beings, but also the poignancy of aging on film from youthful vigor to still-vital but worryingly fragile old age. Each remains rivetingly in the moment and present to the other as appropriate to the character's differing place in their mutual journey. Here, Haneke has hit upon the most accessible, most universally understood experiential vehicle to explore his career-defining obsession with nihilism, or he has made his most emotionally sensitive film yet, a true love story. Of course, Amour is both, but know thyself: some will find this roughest of rides cathartic while others will see it as a pointless emotional flagellation.
Sony again proves top of the line when it comes to hi-def picture and sound. The film-like transfer for Amour presents a detailed recreation of the filmmakers' intentions in color and contrast, which—along with tightly resolved detail and textures—produce an image of significant, lifelike depth; given the film's fresh vintage, the source is spotless and rock-solid. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.0 mix likewise ably recreates the theatrical effect of the film: though one won't notice much in the way of surround engagement, the sound is delicately rendered, and dialogue is always crystal clear (and subtitled for non-French speakers).
The disc includes three bonus features. "Making of Amour" (24:42, SD) is a behind-the-scenes featurette including set B-roll and pre-production footage, as well as interviews with writer-director Michael Haneke and actors Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert. There's also a separate, nicely thorough "Q&A with Michael Haneke" (38:55, HD), conducted at LACMA under the auspices of Film Independent, and the film's "Theatrical Trailer" (1:59, HD).
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