Enhanced by some of the sharpest high definition imaging I’ve seen, the first scenes of Amour had me in knots anticipating to what enhanced interrogation techniques writer-director Michael Hanenke would subject Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. The septuagenarians, former music teachers, watch a Schubert concert performed by a talented pupil. In the sea of faces we can pick the leads out of a lineup: Riva’s brittle, bland beauty and the skeptical cut-this-crap restlessness of Trintignant are identifiable. The pristine images and distrust in the quotidian prime us for horror, but Haneke for once in his career abjures the rather Calvinist preoccupation with purity for materialism.
In his review, Nick Pinkerton accuses Amour of being yet another assortment of pumped up kicks:
Endemic to Haneke’s dry, ratchet-turning movies is the anticipation of an Inevitable Awful Event — let’s call it the “IAE” — an event in which the incipient horror of the human condition pops out from behind the veneer of civilization, an event that the veteran Haneke viewer understands, upon going in, is part of the contract. The IAE breaks the brittle surface of Haneke’s style, and the bracing plunge after the crack of the ice delivers a harsh lesson. His pedantic, castigating filmmaking is a vehicle for these lessons, which have never yet confirmed man’s high opinion of himself.
Now this is true of The Piano Teacher, Cache, and the other examples of Haneke’s cinema of expiation. How fortunate that The Incipient Horror of the Human Condition happens to take place early in the film when Riva refuses to join Trintignant for a nightcap. Who wouldn’t accept a second drink with him? A moment of catatonia spooks him enough to take Riva to the hospital, where the diagnosis is a stroke. Emergency surgery with a 95 percent full recovery rate fails (“We were in the five percent,” Trintignant mordantly observes), and now the couple must cope with a wheelchair-bound Riva paralyzed on her right side. She’s agile enough to keep up with the latest fiction, self-conscious enough to cast off other fictions: the deterioration of their matrimonial state into a parental one.
The next event is inevitable but not awful: another stroke, as science confirms the likelihood of others. With his duckfooted gait and penetrating intelligence, Trintignant suggests the frustration of a man not for a moment conned by the nobility of the responsibilities he accepts (he won’t put his wife in hospice). Riva has garnered the acclaim and the Oscar nod, but Trintignant has the more difficult part. He’s not an amiable chap; for all the erotic charge between he and Riva there’s the suggestion that she endured years of quiet verbal cruelty. With his daughter (Isabelle Huppert, extroverted for the first time in years) he’s terse and unyielding, mocking her sincere attempt at having a “serious talk” about her mother. The disgraced judge in Red, the doubting Jansenist in My Night at Maud’s, and the fascista wannabe in The Conformist add up to portraits of will at war with instinct; in Amour, will and instinct are indivisible. No other 2012 film depends as much on successful casting.
Acknowledging the audience’s complicity, Haneke’s camera lets actors enter rooms without following them. In an hour’s time we memorize every square foot of the Riva-Trintignant apartment: the toilet with the antiquarian WC, the living room strewn with books, an ever-present tea kettle and ashtray on the table, the unexpectedly bare foyer. The ending is a muddle. The second time the damn pigeon gets trapped in the apartment I thought Haneke had lost his mind, and he’s not up to the ambiguity of the ending (expecting ambiguity from Haneke is like expecting pratfalls in a Bresson film), but these are flyspecks on the only honest film he’s made. Don’t call it a horror film though. Yeats and the inexorable accumulation of years tell us that aging isn’t horrible so much as stupid.