The Oscars like a little bit of controversy -- not too much, of course, but enough to make people notice. There's a buzz of debate surrounding several Best Picture nominees this year, from Django Unchained, with its unsettling, slap-happy treatment of slavery, to Zero Dark Thirty, with its murky look at America's post-9/11 use of torture.
Strangely, though, the most shocking Best Pic nominee might be Amour, which deals with the commonplace experiences of aging, illness and death. It's getting harder and harder to scandalize audiences with extremes of sex and violence, with loaded historical topics and sensationalized socio-political issues. This straight-on depiction of old age, on the other hand, is genuinely revolutionary. By gazing unflinchingly on the end of life, Austrian auteur Michael Haneke is busting one of cinema's last taboos.
Amour is an unusual example of shock cinema, being meticulously framed, deliberately paced and carefully distanced. Anne and Georges (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) are retired musicians who treat each other with courtly affection. The walls of their elegant Parisian apartment are lined with paintings, books and music, the visible markers of the life of the mind. But it is the life of the body that occupies Amour. Anne suffers a series of strokes, which take first her mobility, then her speech, then what she sees as essential dignities.
Haneke, possibly the most bringdown director currently working, has made a career out of torturing the bourgeoisie, breaking the smooth surfaces of their lives with sudden inexplicable acts of onscreen savagery (violent home invasions, random mass shootings, post-apocalyptic chaos). In Amour he is so subdued that critics don't know what to think. Is this a late-in-life surge of humanity, that autumnal sense of fullness and generosity that sometimes hits older European filmmakers? ("Haneke goes cruelty-free," proclaims one film writer.) Or is this just another sadomasochistic exercise, cleverly disguised as empathy? According to this view, Haneke hasn't stopped wielding the knife; he's just sharpened the scalpel for finer cuts.
So, cruelty or compassion? For some it's a bit of both. "A masterpiece you might not want to see," reads the headline of a review by American novelist Francine Prose. Her belief in the work's genius is at war with her impulse to warn people away.
There is tenderness here, but it's of the most painful kind. Anne bars visitors, because she wants no witnesses to her narrowing life, her inevitable decline. "None of that deserves to be shown," she states, with crisp rationalism. Haneke underlines Anna's intense sense of sense of privacy and emotional reserve while at the same time violating it. A scene in which a nurse dispassionately demonstrates how to change an adult diaper is filmed with a kind of clinical intimacy.
Amour is unsparing about old age. We watch Trintignant shuffle with wary slowness across a parquet floor. We see Riva's lovely face go slack and ugly with fatigue and fear. At the same time, film fans also hold images of these two famous French movie stars as eternally young. (Riva is known for Hiroshima Mon Amour and Trintignant for A Man and a Woman.) It's a poignant juxtaposition that forces us to recognize the fragility of flesh. And the physicality of Amour is astonishing. One of Riva's pale legs being raised in a rehabilitation exercise is more shocking, more exposed, more nakedly naked than any Hollywood nude scene.
And how often do we see cinematic depictions of 80-something love? That, too, has the critics divided. Haneke's titles can be tricky. If he calls a film Amour, there is every possibility that it's an emotional time-bomb wrapped as a Valentine's present. Some critics view the film as a resounding affirmation of the way love conquers death. More pessimistic critics, meanwhile, suggest that death might be conquering love, or at the very least changing its shape. Either way, Haneke is exploring love in its fullest sense, defined at its unsentimental extremities.
Haneke has made some shocking movies, filled with graphic ultra-violence and calculated visceral jolts. But Amour, in its own quietly relentless way, might be the hardest of his films to watch. One of Haneke's persistent themes is that modern western culture is incapable of coming to terms with fundamental facts like death. The fact that Amour is provoking such strong reactions suggests that he has a point. Most of us will face age and illness; all of us face mortality. And yet truthful cinematic depictions of these human conditions are rare. The fact that the universal feels so unusual demonstrates why Amour is a very difficult but very necessary film.