Dir. Michael Haneke
For those familiar with Michael Haneke’s films, the title of his latest, Amour, might seem like a particularly cruel ironic joke. The Austrian director has developed a cult following for his cerebral, morbid and often gut-wrenchingly violent films. This, his second Palm d’Or winner after 2009s The White Ribbon, is a similarly brutal film, which remarkably manages to maintain the idea and appearance of love in life’s darkest days at the centre of one of the most haunting movies to emerge for some time.
Following the lives of elderly Parisian couple Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), the film is more of a character study than a story, at times documentary-like in its realism and unobtrusiveness. We watch little more than the terminal decline of a wife in her eighties, and the overwhelming effect is has on herself, her husband and their relationship.
The film builds up near-perfect tonal momentum, beginning with humour and vitality as the cultured retirees discuss music, their youths and their lives together. But after an opening scene in which death is literally broken in upon, two early moments in which Anne seems to freeze entirely, unresponsive to her husband’s concerns, are foreboding. From then on, as Anne struggles to cope with the effects of successive strokes and deteriorating health, the film gradually becomes excruciatingly tense and unsettling.
This is managed through the film’s two major successes. First of all, the performances of Trintignant and Riva are sublime. Both actors are elegant yet frail; their depictions of elderly instability coming easy. Riva in particular is stunning in portraying a quite sharp decline: her anger and hurt pride when confined to a wheelchair still allowing moments of warmth. When bed-bound and incapacitated, her tragedy is unbearable to watch.
Secondly, despite the different subject matter, this feels like a typical Haneke movie, full of oppressive silences, distances and emptiness. Taking place almost entirely in their small apartment, Amour always feels claustrophobic, heightened as both characters become ever-more isolated (her in her illness, he in his inability to cope). Holding the camera still and distant from the actors, Haneke leaves the audience, as ever, in the uncomfortable position of voyeurism, questioning their complicity in what is happening on-screen.
When this is natural death itself, the suspicion that we shouldn’t be watching at all is at its apogee, and more disquieting than almost all of his other films. Realism might indeed be Haneke’s most terrifying weapon in his career-long interrogation of spectatorship and the easy, saccharine conclusions of mainstream cinema.
But for a few stumbles in pacing and a suspicion that the plot must have greater impact on viewers of a certain age or circumstance, this is another masterpiece in Haneke’s oeuvre. A film with heart and horror, it may leave you begging for that happy ending which can never come. “None of all that deserves to be shown”, says George of his dying wife: he may as well be pleading with the film-maker. Haneke would argue that it must be shown however; and what certainly is deserved is the acclaim both won and surely forthcoming for one of his very best films to date.