With a near forty year career, Michael Haneke has earned the title as one of the most important filmmakers making cinema today. He tells stories which many would shy away from, all containing a bleak critique on contemporary society as he sees it. You get as much from his films as the emotional baggage that you bring in with you, and his latest Palme d’Or winning Amour is no exception. Performed in his adopted-French, it’s an unflinching look at a married couple coping with disease, age and the brevity of life. But we aren’t voyeurs to the tragedy, we are vicariously experiencing it.
Amour’s premise is simple, but resting underneath is a film of great depth and heart. After a stroke leaves her left-side paralysed, former piano teacher Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) is cared for by her doting husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Much to their daughter’s dismay (played by Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert), Georges promises that she will never be transferred to a care home or hospital, content that she will die in her home, in her own bed, surrounded by the books she once read and the piano she played so beautifully. Anne’s deteriorating health puts a stress on their relationship and soon Georges’ unequivocal love he had for his wife of many years turns into a burden, further destructing his own grip on reality and reason.
Before all that, Amour opens with Anne’s body being discovered by the state officials and apartment block residents. Just like real life, Haneke wants us to know exactly where the film will terminate; but – again, just like life – we have no idea how we’ll get there. It’s a masterstroke of reflexivity, made even more pertinent when the following scene swoops in on a packed opera house, with the audience transfixed on the stage – AKA the camera and right into us – and waiting for their production to start. Maybe it has already begun.
The smallest scale Haneke film of recent memory, aside from the above sequence, it’s shot entirely from the Parisian apartment. Through his quintessential lingering long-takes, we see the remnants of a better time: with extravagant paintings, photographs and two lifetime’s worth of bookshelf literature. For most of us, we’ve had to go through moments of grieving in our lives; if not, we’ve certainly been in the homes’ of elderly people just like this one. So many fond memories, there’s still some dark, dank corners and unopened doors, reflecting that this is not only George and Anne’s sanctuary, but also a sort of self inflicted prison sheltering themselves from the outside world.
With his last major film appearance in Kieslowlski’s masterful Troi Colors: Red from 1994, Haneke begged Jean-Louis Trignant to come out of a seven year retirement for the role of the stoic, considerate Georges. And for good reason. The stoney-faced rock in the relationship, he embodies a strength and wiseness which cements the film’s emotive impact. Whilst his 86-year-old co-star Emmanuelle Riva is devastatingly good as the debilitating Anne. She’s also beautiful too, going through the realistic degradation which Haneke puts her through, she still has that bejewelled glimmer in her eye. It may sound crass to determine their performances as methodical but, both approaching the final twilights of their life, Trignant and Riva bring a brutal sincerity to the film which could never have been faked. If the Academy Awards judges have any sense, they’ll give both acting gongs to these fading stars of French cinema, from new wave to the present day.
It’s not Haneke’s most “entertaining” film (that’s still 2005’s Cache), but it’s perhaps his most impactful. It really is a tough two hour experience, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who is suffering from a recent bereft. But the film is oddly cathartic too. Whether we go willingly or not, Haneke forces us into Georges’ shoes, and we listen in to every one of Anne’s screams and incoherent ramblings as if she was our own family. Ultimately, she is a burden for Georges, but his determination right up to the shocking end is proves that the beneath Haneke’s stark surface is a core of humility and humanity, just like all of us.
In Woody Allen’s classic 1975 comedy, Love & Death, Diane Keaton’s Sonja turns to Woody and says “to love is to suffer”. Move forward 37 years, Haneke has taken this sentiment to heart and created one of the most truthful portrayals of love and death every encapsulated on screen.
PS – I implore you to read this excellent essay from Senses of Cinema regarding the themes of Amour