“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).
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 8½ 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.
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.