During the past few years, Michael Haneke has both amazed, astounded and annoyed me, sometimes even in the course of one single movie (like with Das weisse Band), and if there's one thing to be certain of when viewing his works, it is that he never makes a film simply to entertain – or to tell a good story, for that matter. Haneke makes films to raise questions rather than answer them, and he wants to instigate thought-processes in his viewers, even if this means infuriating or offending them in the process.
His latest film, Amour, is about an old Parisian couple in their early 80s who must deal with the fact that she has a stroke which leaves her partially paralyzed. Unlike many of Haneke's other films, which have been criticized for being detached and cold, this is an intimate portrait of lifelong love, devotion and understanding – there's even a little warmth in here if you look for it. The story is simple, but increasingly powerful as rendered through Haneke's patient and observational style. His direction here is less conspicuous than in some of his other films (Funny Games, Caché). It is more reminiscent of traditional European cinema, in the vein of Eric Rohmer, for instance. And the result is a film that requires attention and effort, but which is in turn is rewarding on several levels; it's both sad and funny, life-celebrating and melancholy, problematizing and perceptive.
Haneke's objective here, aside from telling his compelling little story, are the social and political comments. And one that particularly strikes a chord is when the daughter comes home to check on her mother and is met by her reluctant and indignant father. She wants her mother to be moved into a health-care facility, he claims she's fine staying with him. And here's the brilliant observation Haneke makes: In our modern, death-repellent society, where the advances of medicine have spoiled us into thinking that anything can be fixed, the daughter isn't willing to accept the fact that her mother's decline and eventual death is a natural part of life – or even a possibility. Instead she blames her father for the ugliness of it all and for not wanting the best for her mother, when in reality he simply handles the situation the only way he can: by coming to terms with the fact that death is the only outcome of a life long lived.
Ultimately, Amour also is highly controversial, albeit not in the in-your-face kind of way utilized in Funny Games. On the contrary, the controversy in here is relevant and thought-provoking, underlining how film effectively can be both artistic and political at the same time. If there is something missing in the equation, I'd say a little more essence in the characters – a few more traces in their communication of the life they've shared together. Despite this, however, we're treated to brilliant performances by two of the 'forgotten' stars of the French New Wave. I was never too fond of Hiroshima mon amour, so I was happy to see the now 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva giving a riveting, daring performance in what should be considered her new career high. And almost equally impressive is Jean-Louis Trintignant as her husband. His dignified appearance hides so much repressed shame and frustration that we're actually happy for his release in the end. Their performances are the swan songs of all swan songs. Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn will have me excused.