Why ‘Amour’ is Confronting: It Tells the Truth

I was chatting today with a colleague about the chances of Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s Amour in the Oscars. This German co-production made in France with French actors has gathered an extraordinary five Academy Nominations – for best film, original screenplay and director, best female actor for Emmanuelle Riva, and best foreign film.

We figured its chances of winning in any category are low, but that the nominations were nonetheless a big deal and would give a considerable boost to the film’s box office for its first week when it finally opens on February 28th, having won the Cannes top prize, the Palme d’Or, way back in May 2012.

But this boost, we reluctantly concluded, would probably be followed by a fall-off in box office once the penny drops regarding the film’s undeniably confronting aspects. For while the film is, as its title suggests, about the power of love, it sets this in the context of aging, bodily and mental decay, and death – the inescapably harsh aspects of mortality that most of us prefer not to dwell upon.

Should this second week drop in box–office occur (and hopefully we are mistaken), it will not be because this film doesn’t deserve to be widely seen. It will be because Amour is far more uncompromising than most of the non-English language films occasionally allowed to slip out of the nicely behaved pet category of best foreign feature to jostle for adoration in the main categories with the big Hollywood productions.

Pedro Almodovar’s lively Volver and Roberto Benigni’s uber-sentimental Life Is Beautiful did not, for instance, share much in common, but both did have an audience friendliness that Amour doesn’t try for – and that is not a criticism of Amour but a compliment.

That this story about an elderly man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) caring for his progressively ailing wife (Riva) is uncompromising will surprise no-one familiar with Haneke’s work.

From his international breakthrough, Benny’s Video, through to his two versions of the self-reflexive home invasion story Funny Games, and his German moral corruption parable, The White Ribbon, the Munich-born writer-director has always been more interested in asking serious questions, holding up mirrors to provoke doubt and self-realisation in his viewers, than cosying up to them with pieties.

What some casual film-goers, those unprepared by a knowledge of Haneke’s previous work, may find confronting about Amour is that it refuses to tell comforting lies. This is truth telling not in any literal sense – it is after all a fictional story – but in the deeper sense that it wants us to see life without our traditional blinkers, all those usual filters that keep out close-to-home unpleasantness.

Having attended my own father’s funeral a year ago, and watched my mother’s mental health slowly deteriorate, the essential truth of the story in which Jean-Louis Trintgnant plays the devoted husband to Emmanuelle Riva’s sick wife, is impossible to miss. Not, as I said, in any literal sense, but in spirit.

If I’ve made Amour sound off-putting, I should make it clear that it has an emotional complexity that makes it one of Haneke’s most mature films to date. It is indeed about the process of aging and death, but its choice of title is far from ironic. The difficulty of the story may be all of a piece for Haneke, but the counter-balance is the degree of tenderness he captures as Trintignant’s distressed husband cares for the woman he loves.

Here is an emotional warmth that’s new in the work of this usually most pessimistic of filmmakers, a quality that made my colleague realise that, for him, the film had been far from depressing – it had made him feel uplifted.

Haneke suggests love can flourish in the harshest of circumstances. It can also require drastic actions. But what these are I’d best leave you to discover for yourselves.

L Y N D E N   B A R B E R

(The text was originally published on February 5th, 2013 here
Lynden Barber is a Sydney-based freelance journalist specialising in film and music and a feature film script assessor.
In 2005 and 2006 he served as Artistic Director of the Sydney Film Festival.
He teaches Screen Studies at the Sydney Film School.)

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