Michael Haneke’s latest topped many critics’ “Best of the Year” lists and managed the unlikely feat of not one but two Best Picture Oscar nominations, so it must be pretty damn good. Well, no doubt as an indication of my philistine tendencies, I didn’t find Amour either profound or insightful.
I’m sure many of the reasons it has been so acclaimed are the very ones that left me nonplussed. It could certainly be shown as “prep” work on what to expect for anyone with a deteriorating relative (well, minus a few significant plot details). But it’s this painstaking deliberation over the mundanity of emotionally draining and physically unedifying routines that makes it a chore to sit through.
When a film is so well regarded, there’s the possibility that dissension will be called out as a failure to appreciate its merits, or a deficiency on the part of the viewer (some form of denial, perhaps). I wouldn’t seek to persuade Amour’s admirers that they are somehow wrong, merely emphasise that I found it, in the main, unaffecting. And vaguely irritating, perhaps, that I was supposed to assume the nature of the relationship should somehow be revelatory, as if Haneke had stumbled upon some hallowed or previously unexplored territory. Mostly, though, beyond a certain point, the manipulative tedium of the experience became my presiding response. At about the same time, I wondered if this wasn’t a faintly sadistic joke on the director’s part, to see how far he could push it with a compliant audience (curiously, or twistedly, the outcome of the husband’s decisive act had occurred to me as a means to curtail the unfettered running time).
If I’m honest, though, my knee-jerk response (because it has been so feted) was that, in some quarters, finding a viewing experience difficult is a tantamount to a confirmation of its artistic merit. Ultimately, this may just be an area where differing tastes take over, be it aesthetic, emotional or philosophical (not to mention moral and ethical; brave acts of euthanasia are just the kind of thing the Academy is all over like a rash). Just as horror films aren’t generally my cup of tea, neither are those that construct themselves as a marathon for the viewer, to test their staying power and challenge them to extract some meaning from the experience, particularly when the experience is couched in a worldview of atheistic stagnation.
What does Amour provoke in the viewer that they are not already aware of? Dying can be miserable and slow (particularly if you’re “experiencing” it vicariously as a viewer) and love and devotion sometimes aren’t pretty. Subjects that are doubtless ripe for inspiring great art; I just don’t think there’s much “in” Amour to discover. It won’t resonate with me in the days to come. It’s all there on the surface, wearing its laboured mechanics as a badge of pride (if the viewer suffers too, isn’t that a slight achievement, as a reflection of the experience the couple has undergone?)
Of course, crafty Haneke wants to have it both ways, putting his viewers through an endurance test with his couple, who expressly want to be closeted from prying eyes. So we are essentially allied with Isabelle Huppert’s emotionally outspoken but ineffectual daughter when Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tells her she doesn’t belong in this situation (one of the few scenes in the film that engages dramatically).
I might complement Haneke on his admirable lack of sentimentality, but since his cold, impassive gaze is a defining characteristic I would be stating the obvious. Trintignant and Emmanualle Riva deliver very fine performances; the former deserves praise in particular, since the latter has received most of the awards attention (fairly typical of the affliction = Oscar equation).