In what is probably not a good start to 2013, I am breaking two of my own rules for film reviews in writing about “Amour.” First, I read other film critics’ reviews halfway through drafting. Still baffled and frustrated, I then decided to frankly tell you that I don’t know what to think of it.
I can tell you in a nutshell what other film critics think: they loved it. Universally acclaimed and hailed by some as an instant classic and having won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and a Best Picture nomination for the Academy Awards, I had high expectations prior to watching “Amour.” I did not have to read the reviews to know what wooed the critics: director Michael Haneke’s control and subtlety, deliberate execution, top-notch cast and realistic, unflinching reflections of death as it erodes away the dignity of life. But I read them because I was stunned that despite all the merits of the film that should have appealed to my taste, I felt isolated and unmoved, as if a pane of glass had been placed between the characters’ world and mine. What’s more, even my favorite critics sound trite and unconvincing as they shower the film with praise.
What is going on?
Haneke’s oeuvre (“The White Ribbons,” “Caché”) attests to his phlegmatic attitude toward the cruelty of life on film, and the subject of “Amour,” the path of deterioration and death of an aged woman Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) at the side of her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), dutifully follows the theme. While having breakfast with her husband, Anne suffers a stroke, after which an unsuccessful surgery paralyzes the right side of her body. Anne’s unwillingness to return to the hospital and her deteriorating health pain Georges, whose efforts to look after Anne drain both his energy and his happiness. Visits from their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) and a successful musician (Alexandre Tharaud) whom Anne taught do nothing to offer help or solace to the situation, and in a final shocking act of loyalty, Georges complies with Anne’s wish and sets both of them free. The film murmurs all the right questions: how to cope with aging and atrophy, how to face a lifelong companionship mummified by tragedy, and what to do when love is losing to time. The subject matter intrigues me, but I was dismayed by the outcome. This is a film I hate to hate, and I don’t hate it, but I just can’t find the verve to rave about it as the rest of the world seems to do.
It is not that “Amour” is slow or boring. The pace of “Amour” feels like a walk to the graveyard — not quite pleasant, but hefty and steady. In fact, with the help of cinematographer Darius Khondji, its long, patient shots are just as beautiful to behold as the mise-en-scène (designed by Jean-Vincent Puzos). At times the camera lingers on the empty hallway in Anne and Georges’ house as if to exhale deliberately, leaving ample time for echo and reflection; at times it fixates on the old couple at eye-level a few feet away, as if we were the ones holding the camera and completely absorbed by the dialogue. Khondji irons each shot with calibration: he flattens the perspectives to leave out any adornment or amplification of the scenes, anchored by the weight of the actors. Then he offers a few pleasant surprises, such as the very Hanekesque shot in the beginning where we see a concert audience take their seats, silence their chatters and lend their full attention to the performance in front of us. We are looking at them, and they are looking past us. With this shot, Haneke politely invites us to be a witness in the story and to see the characters in earnest, even when we are watching them from an unlikely and uncomfortable perspective. Under hundreds of pairs of eyes, we cannot escape.
It is not that “Amour” lacks intensity either. Other than its unforgiving nature, the aforementioned shot also introduces the marvel of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, the two leads in a sea of faces that magnetically draw your attention even when you don’t know what they look like. Once the goddess of French New Wave (“Hiroshima, mon amour”), 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva holds nothing back as she vividly and heartbreakingly charts Anne’s descent from urbanity to ugliness. Trintignant (“A Man and a Woman,” “Z,” “Three Colors: Rouge”) portrays Georges with matching poignancy, his body language speaking of his ordeal in love and loss. In a hushed film, their performances boom.
So what has gone awry? An unsentimental film, “Amour” plays no histrionics. It is stripped down, fair and square, and even as half of the characters make music their career, there is no score. Though most of the scenes take place in a delicate, sophisticated apartment in Paris (set decoration by Susanne Haneke and Sophie Reynaud), the movie feels more like a barren landscape, where nature has its way. But if we move closer to inspect, we can spot patches of green, reminding us that this film, after all, is called “Amour.”
Those patches of green are where “Amour” misses. The film is held together by a thin thread of humanity in love, even when hope turns to anguish. That thread is very thin indeed, for Haneke styles the film minimalistically to preserve its realism. As such, the essence of that styling — the direction and editing — diminished my enthusiasm for the film. I was too thrown off by the technical decisions presented on screen to fully indulge in the story itself. When a story is trimmed to the base, as is the case with “Amour,” every element needs to blend exceptionally well to strike the greatest impact in its beholders. Fortunately and unfortunately, there is no uniform standard of “exceptional.” There are only artistic personalities, such as that of editors Monika Willi and Nadine Muse, who cut sequences so crisply at times that I’d expect blood at the rim of the screen; or that of Khondji, whose crafty work feels trite and becomes increasingly predictable over the course of the film; or that of Haneke, who wrote a bewildering childhood story for Georges to tell Anne toward the end that bears little relationship with the rest of the story. The conundrum is not unlike meeting someone smart, funny, nice and everything else you look for, except for a few flaws — flaws that only matter because that person is otherwise so great.
Maybe I am alone in this. Maybe I am a perfectionist who thinks too much. Yet I hesitate over those discrepancies between “Amour” and greatness, because in its stately grace, the film goes through all the motions but gives me no spark. Since we are talking about “amour,” it seems only fair to come to this bottom line: on-screen chemistry is tricky. We can have a long list of pros-and-cons, but in the end, it is how we feel that matters. For me, “Amour” is almost there, but the little distance left makes the film particularly frustrating.
“Amour” has a one-time showing at Amherst Cinema this Thursday. I can’t recommend wholeheartedly that you see it, but consider its merits and decide for yourself. And please, if you end up going, let me know your take on it.
Correction: The screening of “Amour” that was supposed to take place on Thursday was cancelled by Amherst Cinema. It is expected that the movie will come to Amherst Cinema at later, unspecified dates.