Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva. Written and directed by Michael Haneke. PG. 127 min. Opens Jan. 11.
Michael Haneke is a great director. That’s been obvious since the startlingly assured opening shots of his 1989 feature debut, The Seventh Continent—an existential shocker about a bourgeois family slowly wasting away in their well-appointed home. Flash forward 25 years, and he’s still peerless at jolting the sort of highbrow audience that wouldn’t be caught dead at a real genre movie. He’s the reigning king of art-house horror.
Taken on those terms, Amour is a raging success: its story of an elderly Parisian couple (played by French cinema icons Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) locked in a mutual downward spiral as one succumbs to a fatal illness is, by turns, deeply uncomfortable and genuinely scary. But Amour hasn’t been received that way. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and has since been talked up as an outlier in the Haneke filmography—a compassionate take on aging from a filmmaker whose artistic strategy has always been to stockpile alienation effects.
Don’t buy it: Amour is no kinder to its main characters than The Seventh Continent was. Trintignant and Riva are both superb in physically demanding roles, but they’re not playing characters so much as symbols. Anne’s deterioration comes to embody her husband’s fear of abandonment and death, and Haneke makes us watch him squirm at an intimate proximity. Amour’s scenario may be more universal and relatable than the home-invasion and surveillance tropes of Funny Games or Caché, but all that means is Haneke has a bigger audience to brutalize. He isn’t tugging at our heartstrings. He’s going for the jugular.