Bright Lights Film Journal

(Not) Love and Death: On Michael Haneke’s Amour

“The film beautifully captures the slow decomposing of its characters by following a parallel process at the level of cinematic composition.”

Michael Haneke’s latest film begins abruptly with the police breaking down the door to the apartment of the two octogenarian protagonists, Georges and Anne. The violent intrusion is underlined by the fact that we go, with no transition effect, from complete silence and black screen to noise and color. This type of intense narrative shift is common in Haneke’s films. Long periods of apparent stability and quiet are followed by sudden spurts of incredible viciousness, in The White Ribbon (2009), Funny Games (2007, and 1997), or Caché (2005). I say “apparent” because violence lurks just beneath the narrative surface of Haneke’s films, its presence felt constantly. So when it does emerge, it is not just for shock value. Oddly, it soothes us, providing momentary relief from the stress accumulated throughout the film. Child beatings, shootings, throat slashing are part of the director’s repertoire that may force the audience into a sadistic position, but we avoid them in Amour. Or so it seems. Make no mistake, this is a violent film, but its ferocity comes from being forced to confront our own mortality. This is not a film about love, as the title purposely misleads us. This is a film about death, and worse, our death.

The inclusion of “us,” the audience, in the film’s thematic concerns commences immediately following the sequence in which the police find Anne’s rotted body in the apartment. We begin with a flashback to a night when the couple went out to a classical music concert given by one of Anne’s old students, Alexandre. In a beautiful fixed shot, we can see the spectators in the theater as they are waiting for the show to start. After a long moment, as the shot turns into a long take, we become aware of the missing reverse shot. The stage is never shown. We, the “real” audience, are suddenly facing the diegetic audience. We are the reverse shot. So we are pulled into the narrative through a counter-cinema artifice. The lack of reverse shot also points to the impossibility of suture; thus the very beginning of the film points to breakdowns, some literal (the door), some metaphorical (the apparatus of cinema and, by extension, life).

This type of mirror shot of the audience pays tribute to Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959). In that instance, we have a traveling shot of children at a puppet show and a delayed reverse shot. The children’s amazed reactions mirror — albeit in a romanticized way, since Truffaut, after all, did think of cinema as an act of love — the reactions of the film audience. The connection between Haneke and Truffaut is not haphazard. The former’s main actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, are both icons of the French New Wave, a movement defined by the latter. Moreover, both directors belong to the exclusive auteur class. In the case of Haneke, the subtle, psychological use of violence may be the defining mark of his personal style, but his work is also distinctive at a technical level.

Haneke is known for using soundtrack music sparsely, and while Amour is no exception, such music as there is does play an important role. During the fixed shot of the audience, we first hear an acousmatic voice telling the diegetic audience (and, implicitly, us) to turn off the cellphones. Then the music begins. At this point, the music is intra-diegetic: we do not see its source, but we know its point of origin. However, when we move to the next shot, of Alexander, the pianist, the music continues uninterrupted. The sound-bridge transforms the previously intra-diegetic music into non-diegetic, soundtrack music. This type of transformation occurs normally in reverse, non-diegetic to intra-diegetic (the beginning of Fellini’s is a great example), although it is not a rule. However, a similar play on sound and its source comes back later in the film when Georges listens to his wife playing the piano. In a typical shot/reverse-shot formation this time, we see him looking away intensely, then the reverse shot of Anne at the piano, then back to Georges to suture up the sequence. When Georges reaches behind him and turns off the CD player, we realize that Anne is just a figment of his imagination. The sound was not, though. It was always diegetic sound, and we were simply deceived about its source. Sound in this film, even in its limited role, functions as a powerful reminder about appearances. We are asked to look beyond the obvious — this is a love story — to find the true purpose of the film. I realize that most critics have called this a love story, but as I stated above, that is misleading. There are other examples of misdirection, like Georges’ dream that initially appears to be real. And for a film about love, it lacks any actual voicing of emotions and feelings. The lack of “love” words should not mean on its own that the film is about something else. However, it should raise a flag about the message of the film, so let us look further.

I have already posited that Amour is predominantly a film about death. In that regard, we can talk about the excruciating wait before death, and the wait after death that leads to decaying, as is made obvious by the image of dead Anne in the beginning of the film. The film beautifully captures the slow decomposing of its characters by following a parallel process at the level of cinematic composition. When Anne and Georges return from the concert, the camera remains in a fixed position again. They are in the lobby, then they move into the kitchen and bathroom, yet the camera does not budge. This type of shot quickly becomes the emblematic shot of the film. There are very few tracking shots (I counted two), and the result is that time expands. Space is not quite as important in this film, as evident from the insistence on private, interior space; there are only two intrusions, the police and the pigeon (the latter on two occasions). The outside is irrelevant. All the drama happens indoors, and we can go further to claim that the drama is interiorized. The only way to adequately bring to the surface such complicated emotions is by slowing down and expanding time. Of course, the fixed shot also parallels the increasing lack of mobility of the characters. As they are headed toward death, it seems that the film does the same. It ceases to move. The culmination of this descending cinematic journey is a series of shots of the several paintings around the apartment. If a film were to stop, or to die metaphorically, it would necessarily split into its components and return to its original building block — the photograph. The shots of the paintings are like freeze-frames, just one of the twenty-four moving images that give us the impression of movement in cinema. Haneke takes his film even farther back in history and settles on the grandfather of photography — painting. And the film comes to a stop; it disappears along with its characters.

The act of breaking down into smaller components, the decaying and dying of the characters and the film, is signaled also in one barely perceptible but powerful detail. In the living room, just above Georges’ chair, we see an opened Russian doll in three separate shots. As a literary effect, the Russian doll explains the narrative layers of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for example (i.e., the further we go, the more we discover, and the closer we get to the smallest doll in the sequence, or the “heart” of the issue). As a mise-en-scène prop, it reminds us that the film, and we, has peeled off all the possible narrative layers. We have penetrated deep into the lives of Georges and Anne, and found not love but death, contrary to the film’s title.