By Eleanor Ringel Cater
There’s an old show biz chestnut, variously attributed to different people that goes something like this:
A famous comedian is terminally ill. One of his buddies goes to see him in the hospital. The guy says, “This must be so hard for you.” And the sick man replies, “Dying’s easy. Comedy’s hard.”
I’m not so sure you’ll agree after seeing “Amour,” Michael Haneke’s masterpiece that takes on love, death and the whole damn thing head on.
And never flinches.
Though you might…flinch, that is, as you watch the melancholy inevitability with which death intrudes upon an elderly couple in Paris. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintingnant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are comfortably retired, living a refined life in their Paris apartment, surrounded by books and music, with the occasional night out to a recital or a restaurant.
But one morning — a damnably typical sunshine-y morning — it all goes wrong. Anne briefly spaces out, as we used to say in the ‘60s. It’s just a moment and nothing terrible happens, but it is the first slip in a terrible, drawn-out decline.
Who knew the Valley of Death could be found in one of Paris’s Arrondisements?
“Amour” let’s no one off the hook. Not the caretaking spouse. Not the daughter (Isabelle Huppert). Not even Anne herself. The dying can be selfish, too.
A slight sense of sadism permeates almost all of Haneke’s movies. Sometimes it’s overt (“Funny Games”). Sometimes it’s more subtle (“Hidden”). It’s there in “Amour,” but the filmmaker seems, on occasion, slightly regretful about what he’s putting us (and his characters) through. That may be because Haneke himself knows he is as likely to draw the short straw when mortality beckons as the rest of us.
So much of “Amour” is demanding that, in a sense, the movie is as hideous as it is, well, breathtaking. How could Haneke have had the courage to make this film? How could his cast have mustered the courage to act in it? How can we, the audience, summon the courage to share their monumental journey?
“Amour” is an example of Truth and Dare. Here is a fundamental, all-encompassing Truth that Dares us to make its journey. And dares us to decide for ourselves. Is this the best that could have happened in this particular scenario? Are there other choices that could’ve been made, other sources (doctor, friends, hospice?) that could’ve offered some solace? And, finally, is what happens a heroic gesture of enduring love or a horrifying chronicle of love gone mad?
The scene that lingers with me is an early one, before disease and decay get their foothold. Georges and Anne have just returned from a recital and they find someone has broken into their apartment. No great harm done, but it is, nonetheless, unsettling. Much too often, that is how death sneaks into a home. Unbidden, hidden, waiting…