You might call Michael Haneke cold (we’ve been calling him that for ages), but to nick a phrase from Fassbinder, love isn’t colder than death in Amour. Compared to the body of work that brought the filmmaker international renown and a mountain of awards, some might say he’s warming up a little bit—letting his silver hair down. Not insignificant is the film’s seamless fabric of success between Cannes and the 2012 Academy Awards, the latter of which included Haneke’s drama among its vaunted finalists in several key categories. During awards season, Haneke became something of a Hollywood cause célèbre, the town’s favorite Austrian import in nearly 30 years.
On the other hand, to call Amour Haneke’s most sentimental film is a little like declaring To the Wonder the Terrence Malick film with the greatest amount of camcorder footage. There just isn’t much there. The love that binds long-married Georges and Anne (screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) is but a tectonic plate, whose stresses and fractures Haneke places under his famed exacting gaze. The elemental forces he’ll put into concert are declared within the first eight minutes, and the remainder of the film documents something like the effects of a slow, quiet, yet massive earthquake.
The pre-title sequence, which carries a slightly Hawksian vibe (in particular the near-silent opening of Air Force), leads metro police to a discovery that will anchor all subsequent events: Anne’s decaying cadaver, lying in state, head surrounded by flower petals. Georges is unseen, the cause for his absence only vaguely alluded to by the film’s conclusion. Anne’s withered lips and wasting features, pulling back from her teeth, carry with them no small shock—less for the cops than for us, as we’re not accustomed to seeing such things in a movie.
Like Citizen Kane and Sunset Boulevard, mysteries that open with the corpse, Amour will cover the events leading up to the police breaking into the couple’s apartment. In the end there will only be a single mourner, the flat wiped clean of the stench of death, the memories made there already fading like cooling metal. The ensuing narrative will be fortified by few dramatic junctures, none more prominent than what we see in the opening minutes. An epoch-long marriage, leavened by familiarity and affection, is gently established. Anne suffers a pair of strokes that leaves her debilitated and incoherent. Georges is spared nothing in being forced to witness the slow degeneration of a woman he’s loved all his life, and gradually loses his grip on dignity, self-care, and, finally, reality.
Haneke naysayers—I among them, at times—argue that the writer-director presses his microscope’s glass against his specimens so forcefully as to deny them movement and oxygen. Many say the same about Kubrick, not necessarily without cause. There’s no sense that Haneke compromised on his methodology for Amour. If anything, he challenges himself by limiting his capital to an effective cast of two, a single set, and a small set of concerns, primarily the death that steals the mind before it claims the body. An unexpected knack for the chamber drama is revealed as a talent of Haneke’s, whose films tended toward the expansive, existential, and sometimes deliberately esoteric. In a handful of well-appointed rooms, worn with grooves of years worth of routine, the plausibility of Riva’s Anne and Trintignant’s helpless witness Georges is beyond question.
Fair enough, though Michael Haneke’s genius for digital underexposure is a little bit of a challenge for Sony’s routine Blu-ray compression, leaving something to be desired in the definition of many low-light shots. The sound field is well arranged, respecting, as it ought to, the memorable geometry of Anne and Georges’s mausoleum-apartment.
Supplements don’t seem to be in abundance in this release or the Artificial Eye version—a surprise given the film’s post-Cannes flowering with the international press. Sony’s disc only includes a making-of featurette and a Q&A with Haneke. Both are decent enough, but they barely rescue the platter from barebones status. The Artificial Eye edition includes a quick, English-subbed chat with Jean-Louis Trintignant that would have been nice.
Gently divesting himself of his old reputation as a cold, unforgiving schoolmaster, but cutting and probing all the same, Amour enjoyed more crossover appeal than all of Michael Haneke’s previous work put together. Sony’s Blu-ray is light on extras, and gives Darius Khondji’s genius with all types of light a bit of a short shrift, but it’s not a severe enough knock to give this disc a pass.