The films of Michael Haneke thrum with menace. An obscure, abstract, existential and--essentially--outside menace. There's the arrival of the genial and brutal Tom and Jerry in Funny Games, for instance; the surveillance videos that show up on Anne and Georges's doorstep in Cache; the gory accidents that accrue in the quaint village in The White Ribbon. These menaces can come to feel like punishments, tests, out-and-out Old Testament scourges--though only if the Old Testament had no God in it. The cart tends to come before the horse in the work of Haneke: the punishment comes first, leaving the punished to plumb their own pasts and lives for some explanation.
In Amour, however, the menace is interior. Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers in their eighties, dividing their time between remaining culturally active and puttering around their Paris apartment. As the film opens, the couple returns from a concert by a former student to find the lock on their door broken. Unaware that they're in a Haneke film, the old folks don't seem too concerned. Over breakfast the next morning, Anne spaces out, is unresponsive to Georges. He cups her face (you'll recognize this positioning from the posters) in a manner that, in a different context, would be a romantic hold, but now Georges only gapes dreadfully at his wife. From there, Anne's health crumbles. And it's as though we, the viewers, were the ones who broke into Anne and Georges's, and are now locked in with them as struggle to bend their love to the demands of Anne's condition.
In Funny Games, the viewer is similarly trapped along with a couple (also named Anne and Georges) as they're tortured by two psychopaths. I don't think I've ever been so disturbed by a movie, ever felt so trapped. I bring this up at the risk of turning you (whoever you are) off from Amour. Because, in some ways, the gut discomfort, the emotional claustrophobia I felt in Haneke's recent film (a contender for both Best Foreign Film and Best Film at this year's Oscars) were the same. Haneke's agent of punishment here is our own makeup, our own corporeality, and this is what makes Amour especially discomforting. Chances are good that not a one of us will ever be taken hostage by maniacs in tennis outfits, but the situational confinement suffered by Georges and Anne is very real; we can't help but project ourselves and those we love into their hell.
But how can I wrap Amour up in that horrifying bow and still make an argument for it being a film about love? I think it will depend on each individual's emotional capacity to be honest about life's content. The strife for Anne and Georges is profound, but so too is their love. In some ways, in all its horror, Amour is one of the few true-blue love stories I've seen on screen. Culturally, we think of and talk about love as a feeling, some great event--which it can be--but rarely are we comfortable talking about love as daily labour, as its own challenge and reward. Amour is not so much about love as a noun, but as a verb. As a noun love is static, but as a verb it's a bit bizarre, forever changing how and why and to where it moves.
It's this movement, this action that Haneke has captured so well, making Amour a marvellous, Muybridge-esque study of love's gaits.