Richard Brody recently published an eloquent and well-reasoned piece in his Front Row column in The New Yorker on Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or-winning and Oscar Best Picture-nominated film "Amour." In the article, Brody discussed its "sterility" and how the "smirking pleasure" exhibited by its filmmaker at the film's (spoiler alert) climactic murder scene made it feel "repellent." Haneke's game, as it always has been, is to make the audience complicit in whatever heinous act he chooses to depict onscreen, in this case the euthanasia of someone in extreme pain.
Brody is correct to identify this characteristic, which a lot of more positive reviews missed—or chose to ignore—but he confuses it for a weakness. More erroneous are those who have suggested that "Amour" represents Haneke softening, becoming more humanistic in his old age. Far from it—as Brody notes, his gaze is chillier and more grimly fixed than ever. This is evinced not only by the movie's rigid frames and lengthy takes—the camera never cuts away to spare us distress—but also by the film's representation of the dying process as the ultimate in body horror: pain, dementia, incontinence, and the foul stink of a decaying corpse.
The overwhelming sense in "Amour" is one of entrapment. The elderly Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) suffers a stroke and swiftly deteriorates in front of her husband's eyes. She's a spirit trapped in a collapsing body, and the sentimentalist view of the film might see Georges's (Jean-Louis Trintignant) eventual smothering of her as the ultimate act of that love for which the picture is titled. He releases her from this prison just as he, earlier in the film, releases a dove that wanders accidentally into their Parisian apartment.
But this is where Haneke muddies the waters. Georges is equally trapped—within the imprisoning walls of the apartment from which, with one exception at the beginning, the action never leaves. He has nightmares, the burden of caring for Anne becomes his only activity, and he starts to shut out acquaintances and friends—even the couple's daughter. Speaking at the Golden Globe Foreign Language Film Symposium on Jan. 12, Haneke described Trintignant as having "a secretiveness to him, a mystery." He's right—Georges's face gives no clues as to the true nature of his motives, and it lends that final killing an air of terrible ambiguity. Is Georges freeing his wife as much as he is freeing himself?
The viewer might find this idea unpalatable—indeed, perhaps they should find it unpalatable—but so it goes with a director who once claimed his aim was to "rape the viewer into independence." Our complicity with Georges, if Brody is right in identifying it, appears to suggest that Haneke has succeeded. Whether or not this is grounds to actually dislike the film or simply the issues it confronts is a matter of personal taste, but don't think for a second that Haneke has mediated his modus operandi or stark vision of the universe. Pushed to the edge of life as it is in "Amour," love, too, eventually perishes.