*** (3 stars)
wd – Michael Haneke
ph – Darius Khondji
pd – Jean-Vincent Puzos
ed – Nadine Muse, Monika Willi
cos – Catherine Leterrier
p – Margaret Ménégoz
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell
The act of watching a movie is in-part an extended act of voyeurism. We are being allowed to observe the lives of the characters from the safe distance behind this mystic box they call “a camera”, and most of the time we see things that society would never allow us to see in life. What a devilish and exhilarating act! With this in mind, the question is raised as to whether what we feel when we see things we shouldn’t be seeing is a natural human reaction or a hardened manifestation that we have been conditioned to feel through the permissiveness of the culture? The answer to this is within the way the voyeuristic offense has been served to us. When people are dying willy-nilly in Total Recall (2012) we feel nothing because the presentation has disguised the voyeuristic truth. Yet a single slap in the face in an Ozu film is a shocking tremor to behold.
Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (although he was born in Germany and has worked predominately in France) has constructed an oeuvre on voyeurism versus desensitization. His latest film, Amour, avows this immediately. The film begins with the most startling jump-scare I’ve seen this year. Authorities brake through the blockaded doors of an abandoned apartment, and the stench of death instantaneously overcomes them. Mr Haneke’s camera fluidly follows the police around the apartment, before settling on the decomposing body of an elderly woman. Then, the word “Amour”, in black-and-white, plastered on the screen.
After this we meet Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a married couple who are both 80 years old. They are retired, educated music teachers. In fact, when we meet them they are attending the performance of a former favourite student. When they arrive back home they realize that their house has been robbed. We never meet these criminals or witness the crime. The reason we never meet them is because they are us. We, the audience, are in fact the intruders who are about to observe the far too personal goings-on of what led to that opening shot.
The next morning, in an agonizing, beautifully acted scene, Anne suffers a stroke. Mr Haneke has continually been accused of presenting a cold view of the world. I have never agreed with this. His austerity, much like Ozu, is born out of the voyeuristic decisions he makes to show how his characters (who occupy the same world as us) love one another. When it was announced what the title of his new film would be, people joked. I didn’t. For Mr Haneke has always made movies where we see what love is behind closed doors. The conundrum occurs because many people’s definition of love is incorrect. They say “Love”, when they really mean “Romance” or “Lust”. Much like Quentin Crisp, Mr Haneke defines love as: the extra effort you make in dealing with people whom you do not like. Amour affirms this.
The austerity is felt within the flow of the film. As always with this filmmaker, scenes begin and/or end never when we expect them to. Sometimes we are allowed to voyeur only through mid-conversation and other times we are given permission to view far beyond the point of necessary information. Both Mr Trintignant and Ms Riva are astonishing. She has only done four films in the last fourteen years, him zero. To see these two greats working again in such complex circumstances is a formidable affair. Ms Riva’s most famous performance being another film with the word "amour" in the title. The always beautiful and brilliant Isabelle Huppert (her third film with Haneke) here plays their extremely concerned daughter.
For me, Michael Haneke’s masterpiece is Cache. In that film there is a moment when one character decides to do something, then does it in front of another character. I dare not reveal what it is. Anyone reading this that has seen the picture knows exactly what I’m talking about. It is a moment that stops the heart unlike anything else any director has done; whether they are working in the thriller genre or not. There is a similar moment in Amour that not only throws everything we have seen into question, but also the reason why we have been allowed to see anything at all. And believe me, “allow” is the correct term.
Amour was awarded the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and a deserving winner it is. It beat out two other great films, Holy Motors (2012) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012). It is a definite, exceptional work of grace and stimulating intelligence by one of the greatest living filmmakers. It is not only one of Mr Haneke’s best films, it is also one of the year’s best.