It’s hard to not answer “What is love?” with “Baby don’t hurt me”–but that doesn’t invalidate the question. In Amour, Michael Haneke examines it in one of the most forbidding of “normal” environments: old age. Though it’s a very good film, I don’t think it’s the great one that many see it to be; its frame of reference is deceptively narrow. Amour isn’t didactic, with points to demonstrate in the manner of a polemical; but it asserts its ambiguity at least once–when an elderly father asks his daughter, sarcastically, to have a “serious” conversation about the decline in her mother’s health. The sharp cutaway, before she can respond, stammers out “No happy answers!” like a thesis statement. Earlier on, the daughter mentions that she always felt reassured when she listened to her parents make love. (Très français!) Cut to: Servicemen replacing their marriage bed with a mechanical one. Haneke may think of his static, long-held medium shots as subterfuge, but they hide less of him than he thinks. That said, what they reveal is often worth his pretense of detachment. This may be a bad date movie, but it is a love story.
We know where this is going from the start. The fire department breaks into a spacious Parisian apartment, and finds a mummy in the mausoleum; as the film progresses, the flat never loses its thick, musty air–books and old memories turned to dust. I don’t see this movie as a funeral for the haute-bourgeois, as other critics do, and I’d resist the ultimately fruitless reading that death comes even to those most insulated in life; but it’s approaching midnight in Paris for Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), and one senses that what they leave behind is the stuff of Woody Allen’s dreams: a frictionless artistic life that’s sometimes decorated with an evanescent, gossipy sort of drama, but never, ever bothered by want of wealth or prestige. Though I wouldn’t criticize the movie for simply inhabiting this realm–one which Haneke is no stranger to–it does seem like a form of simplification: He’s sucking the air out of their lives before they even get a chance to suffocate. Their situation is cleaned up to satisfy his austere gaze; its purity is a controlled variable, as if the story were an experiment.
But I don’t ascribe cruelty to his methods or intentions; I’m not so paranoid as those who see Amour and hear Haneke cry wolf–though that reaction is a dubious testament to the strength of his mindfuckery. That mummy we saw was Anne, and the film chronicles her decline. The image of her face, staring at Georges and looking at precisely nothing, is indelible. Georges holds her neck and he still can’t reach her. After this first stroke, and a botched operation, she’s left paralyzed on one side; soon she’s an invalid, reduced to rote moaning and an occasional act of insolence to confirm that there are still vestiges of an adult locked away in that sarcophagus.