What’s Left

Film review: Amour (Director: Michael Haneke)

By Sascha Krieger

We see: a concert audience from the perspective of the stage. Expectant faces, old and young. In the midst of all this, just parts of the crowd, two older faces, a man with receding hair, cautiously interested, an older woman with a glowing expression, Their eyes are on the stage but in reality their focus is on each other. They are what they have and that, one can glimpse from this long shot near the opening, is quite a lot. In the end, so the beginning of the film has told us, at least one of them will be gone and it is this long process of death and the most ultimate of all separations that Michael Haneke puts in front of us for the next two hours and he does so in the most unsentimental of ways. What he shows is love when it matters most, love that turns into pain and loss but is worth so much more than what these can take, love that is strongest when it destroys and which destroys because it is so strong. Amour is both a devastating portrait of what cannot be avoided as well as Haneke’s warmest and most humanistic film. For those who only want to see one film this year, this should be the one.

Amour has all the hallmarks of the Haneke cinema. The long stills, the quiet camera movements which always keep a distance and hardly ever move into close-up, the laconic sound, the slow pace, the quietness without any dramatic outbursts, the absence of music, the subtle acting, the sense of mystery. The look at old age is harsh indeed, there is no mitigating factor to the relatively rapid decay and dissolution of a human being and the helplessness of the one left behind. Those long camera shots are relentless, they conceal nothing, neither externally nor internally. Indeed, it is the very distance Haneke creates that does not allow the viewer to hide behind sentimentality or shock, that throws what is happening straight in our faces.

And above all, it is the normality that hits hardest, for this is the normal way of life, this is how it must end, it is what we know will eventually happen to all of us and yet which none of us is prepared for. Jean-Louis Trintignan and Emmanuelle Riva play the long-married couple with astonishing dignity and warmth, a stinging tenderness and a subtlety that makes them almost painfully real. We can see the life, the enthusiasm, the knowledge gradually disappear from Riva’s character and we are left as helpless as Trintignan’s.

There is a constant sense that he cannot survive this loss of so much that he has been and yet, again Haneke does not employ any dramatic tricks and techniques, he just unfolds the growing emptiness in this large and aged apartment in which the film, which the exception of the concert scene, never leaves. And as the life gets sucked out of it it is filled with a stifling heavy emptiness which makes the big space feel somewhat claustrophobic, the absence getting stronger and stronger and swallowing all there is until there is nothing else left.

As hard as Amour is to bear at times, it also carries more love and warmth and affirmation of life than most of his other films combined. For the loss only feels so unbearable because it is so much that is being lost. In a way, Amour  is a relative of Andreas Dresen’s Halt auf freier Strecke, a totally unsentimental portrait of death and loss that is first and foremost also a celebration of love and life.

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