Some good movies inspire endless repeat viewings. I’ve seen ‘Citizen Kane’ several dozen times; I’ve watched ‘Ghostbusters’ at least twice that. Then there are other good movies for which one viewing is enough for an entire lifetime. Films like ‘Requiem For a Dream’ and ‘Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom’ are powerful works of art — perhaps too powerful and too overwhelming in their depictions of death, misery and human cruelty to endure more than once. ‘Amour,’ the new film from Michael Haneke, falls into the latter category. I am glad I saw it — and hope I never see it again.
With a merciless, unblinking perspective, Haneke watches the slow breakdown of an elderly couple. When we meet Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), they are a happy pair of retired music teachers. Now in their 80s, they live a quiet life, attending concerts and enjoying each other’s company. One morning, Anne freezes at the breakfast table. She stops answering Georges’ questions and doesn’t move or speak for several minutes. A short while later, she springs back to life as if nothing’s happened, with no memory of her attack.
This is not a good sign — in fact, it’s the beginning of the end. Anne soon suffers a stroke, and then another, and ‘Amour’ observes this beautiful, vibrant woman as she slowly slips from life, and her endlessly patient and loving husband cares for her as best he can. The couple’s daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) comes to visit and thinks Anne should be put in some kind of hospital or home, but her mother hates doctors, and before she fully falls prey to her illness, she makes Georges swear not to take her back to one. Reluctantly, Georges agrees — which means he will spend his wife’s final weeks and months maintaining a regimen of bathing, feeding and changing her, and enduring hours of her endless, agonized moans after she loses the ability to speak.
If I have made ‘Amour’ sound like a brutal experience, then I have described it accurately. That it reflects accurately the way many people — and many of us — will leave this world makes it no less painful to watch. This is not a film about a battle with a potentially fatal illness: it is a film about a defeat by an inescapably fatal illness. Haneke does not buoy us with hopes of a miraculous recovery. Anne is doomed, Georges and Annes’ happy life together is doomed and, by association, so are we all.
Our collective and inevitable entrapment by our human fraility is echoed by Haneke’s decision to set the entire film after the first few scenes inside Georges and Anna’s apartment, which is relatively large but begins to feel claustrophobically small as Anne’s condition worsens and Haneke doggedly refuses to give us any respite from the atmosphere of approaching death. Though the couple occasionally visits the hospital, and while Georges goes out shopping for groceries, the camera remains locked in the house with Anne, where the air is thick with foreboding. The only time we get to leave the apartment at all ultimately turns out to be a dream sequence with a truly nightmarish conclusion.
Haneke is a director who often treats film as a test of mental endurance. He has twice made ‘Funny Games,’ a debilitatingly depressing story of a family held hostage and slowly destroyed by a pair of young psychopaths — and with ‘Amour’ he has essentially remade the same story a third time in much less sensationalistic detail. Once again, we are trapped in a home with a family, once again there is no real possibility of escape, once again we frequently question our decision to watch a movie that has so clearly been designed to make us uncomfortable and sad.
I’m still wrestling with that question. While Haneke’s technical skills are beyond reproach — ‘Amour’s’ aesthetic is clean, simple, but savagely effective — I have a hard time imagining a situation in which I would recommend this movie to someone. We should walk out of it with a renewed sense of the importance of our short time on this earth, but ‘Amour’ is also so unflinchingly cold and pitiless, that the emotion I most felt after seeing the film was not love, or gratitude for the future, but absolute and total exhaustion.
‘Amour’ makes its theatrical debut Wednesday, December 19.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’