A Masterpiece You Might Not Want to See

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Francine Prose in the NYRB blog:

Michael Haneke’s Amour is the ultimate horror film. With its portrayal of the shocks, the cruelties and indignities to which old age and disease subject a happily married Parisian couple, it’s far scarier and more disturbing than Hitchcock’sPsycho, Kubrick’s The Shining, or Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, and like those films, it stays with you long after you might have chosen to forget it. Like all of Haneke’s work, Amour raises interesting and perhaps unanswerable questions: Can a film be a masterpiece and still make you want to warn people not to see it? Can a movie make you think that an artist has done something extraordinary, original, extremely difficult—and yet you cannot imagine yourself uttering the words, “You’ve got to go see Amour”?

It’s hard not to appreciate the film’s extraordinary qualities. Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert deliver performances so convincing and delicately nuanced that we forget they are actors, let alone French movie stars; their ability to make us think we are watching real people is partly why the film is at once so impressive and so distressing. Every camera angle seems meticulously chosen, every scene artfully composed; every detail of costume and setting—a worn bathrobe, a pair of slippers, dresses hanging in a closet, the precise way that the piano is positioned in the living room, the “good” furniture so familiar that it has become almost invisible to its owners—is appropriate to the two elderly musicians whose travails we are watching; every exchange appears to have been written and shot with perfect confidence about precisely how much to conceal or reveal.

But Amour can be excruciating to watch. The film’s narrative arc is more or less clear from the opening scene, in which we see firemen bashing their way into a handsome, high-ceilinged, old-fashioned Paris apartment. The workers are visibly disturbed by a smell that turns out to come from the corpse of an old woman: nicely dressed, comfortably positioned in bed, her hair fixed, decked with flowers, all of it conveying the odd jauntiness one sometimes observes in Sicilian catacombs. Then, the action shifts back in time.

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