The misery of our own mortality is a rich subject for dramatic explication, and it’s been previously mined, with varying degrees of success, by works as varied as Sarah Polley’s Away from Her, David Lynch’s The Straight Story, and Margaret Laurence’s novel The Stone Angel. But the raw physicality of decay is the stuff body-horror nightmares are made of, and the intrinsically sensationalistic dimension of that kind of narrative makes it all too easily for an earnest exploration of death to resemble the straight-up exploitation of the same. Michael Haneke, Austria’s most infamous enfant terrible, is too savvy a showman to have embraced this particular subject unaware of its juicily exploitative baggage, which is why claims that Amour represents a marked departure or maturation strike me as fairly dubious. Even the film’s title, which might reasonably apply to the honestly loving relationship at the center of the narrative, is deployed with a perfidious smirk, its title card appearing as it does the very moment a corpse is revealed. Rest assured, this isn’t the work of a newly moral or humanistic filmmaker, but another ruse by the same unscrupulous showman whose funny games have been beguiling us for years.
Thus, as we bear witness to the parade of indignities inflicted on the elderly, beautiful Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) as she rapidly recedes from herself and the world around her, there’s no sense that anything is to be gleaned or gained beyond the residue of vicarious suffering. Haneke’s gaze, trained from an unbridgeable remove, carries no inflection of empathy; his style is too frigid, his investment too remote, for the world of these characters to open up before us, for their pain to ever feel like something more than functional. Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, as Anne’s husband Georges, offer performances of enormous warmth and generosity, but as victims of a universally unavoidable terror they’re believable only as icons, as stand-ins for our grandparents or parents or ourselves. But they do capably illustrate one body’s harrowing dissolution: What begins as fleeting periods of unresponsiveness blooms, suddenly and with little warning, into a whirlwind of bodily ruin. Life trots out hurdle after hurdle on the short road to nonexistence: Anne’s limbs give out, daily tasks seem Sisyphean, and eventually even speech is beyond her. There’s no going gentle into that good night; it’s all useless rage.
That Anne’s mental and physical degradation unfurls with the severity of serious horror was perhaps a sly aesthetic decision, but it also feels intensely, in fact almost perversely, overdetermined; one can never shake the feeling that by magnifying death’s ugliest qualities from a “measured” emotional remove, Amour is simply following the path of least resistance to achieving its desired visceral effect. It seems a given that audiences will leave this film shaken because, frankly, we all see somebody we know and love in Riva’s wilting face, and it’s hard to not be stirred by the resemblance. Haneke is keenly aware of this inevitability; its manipulative effect is so strong that he needn’t do anything to generate a response. That’s why Amour is content to coast on its prestige-picture austerity and dry, flavorless manner: Fueled by its audience’s fear of their own mortality, the content on display is so inherently provocative that rendering it meaningful is beside the point. It is, above all else, a deeply edifying horror film: It intends to teach us that, despite our faith in the redemptive power of education and refinement, all we have to look forward to is filth and degradation.
But the approach is ultimately hollow. And Haneke, as ever, tucks his usual tricks in the margins: an uncanny dream sequence provides an excuse for his trademark shock-horror; a last-act gesture of violence dresses the nihilism of The Piano Teacher’s self-flagellation up as something superficially humane; and, to quote Fernando F. Croce, his style is “so not-a-hair-out-of-place suffocating that even a lost pigeon’s flapping wings [seem] too immaculately choreographed.” There’s a deceptiveness lurking deep within Amour, an insincerity that colors the drama, recasting it as a ploy. Whereas across earlier films Haneke’s predilection for deceit served a high-minded, if still somewhat suspect, intellectual purpose (an interrogation of privilege and meaning in Caché, the deconstruction of genre in both versions of Funny Games, and so on), here his disingenuous approach is not only unwarranted, but is actually at odds with the tone and tenor of the drama. This suggests two possibilities: Either Haneke has attempted to shear his sensibility of trickery and failed to do so convincingly, or he has made an experiment in manipulation and feigned empathy so exacting and oblique that nobody has understood its real purpose (I wouldn’t put the latter past him). Either way, Amour intends to dupe us, to feed on our own pain and suffering. Moved to tears or scared to death, we’d all lose our dignity in the end.