Michael Haneke’s latest Cannes dominating feature Amour may be a softening in terms of subject matter but the director’s steely focus on the essentials of human engagement is as tight and tension building as ever. A love story in its end stages Amour chronicles the physical decline of well to do French retiree Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and the actions of her partner Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he transitions in role from husband-mate to husband-caregiver. A simple conceit to be sure but Haneke’s unfaltering camera tracks the downwards spiral with characteristic unsentimentality highlighting both the depth and frailty of human love and relationship.
The film begins at the end with a brief epilogue of sorts then leaps back to the central couple finding seats in a concert hall. Haneke shoots from the stage so that we hear the performance but see the audience. The director purposefully does not focus on Anne & Georges perhaps daring the viewer to pick them out of the audience, making a point of their status as average, everyday people. From the concert we follow the couple home and from that point on the action never leaves their Paris apartment; the confinement of the camera to the house mirroring the necessary geographic narrowing of our protagonists’ lives. The film traces the spiral of physical and emotional ups and downs as the couple comes to grips with Anne’s worsening health. For example: Anne’s despondency from slowly accepted loss of independence is temporarily buoyed by the acquisition of an electric wheelchair but this sensation of control is quickly muted once again by the inexorable encroachment of her condition.
We get few enough films devoted to elderly subjects, let alone the uneasy, rich complexity of long held love, so to have one the greatest living directors give this topic such robust yet human treatment is truly a gift. Another film that covers some (loosely) similar territory is Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (2006) about an elderly married couple dealing with the wife’s early onset Alzheimer’s and some of the memories this both stirs to the surface and also those her condition deletes. But where Polley’s film (very good though it is) introduces narrative interest via the couple’s history Haneke keeps his (and our) sights fixed upon the here and now; Georges and Anne living with the changes occurring without much more than cursory references to ‘before’. The incapacitation and confusion caused by Anne’s illness reminded me of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Cristi Puiu’s 2005 harrowing and illuminating sojourn through the dying night of his eponymous elderly Romanian protagonist, though these are otherwise quite different films.
As expected the director coaxes excellent, nuanced performances out of his entire cast, in particular the lead couple. Though Riva is currently sweeping the international awards for her performance – including an Oscar nomination and a BAFTA win – to my mind it is Trintignant who has the more complex role and ranged performance. I mostly agree with the sentiment expressed by Indiewire’s Kevin B. Lee who comments in his 31 Jan 2013 “Press Play” video essay:
“I don’t understand why Riva has been getting most of the acclaim, when it’s her co-star Jean-Louis Trintignant who has the more difficult job as her husband, trying to make sense of her decline and manage their tragedy. Once again, the pathos of a character catches our attention more than the actual performance.”
Regardless of the amount of truth in these thoughts, both central performances are strong, graceful, and unerringly true. Support cast in the form of the couple’s daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), former music pupil made good Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), the two nurses Georges eventually employs to help (Carole Franck & Dinara Drukarova), and the neighbouring couple who offer practical help (Rita Blanco & Ramón Agirre) are all on good form though I would say much of the credit belongs to the direction and the script.
Noted cinematographer Darius Khondji – who also worked on Haneke’s U.S. remake of Funny Games and more recently Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love (not to mention one of my personal favourites Jeunet and Caro’s City of Lost Children) – works sensitively with the director to make effective use of the limited setting, shooting not just close-ups but many hallway and corner shots and smooth follows along the household corridors.
In Amour Haneke blends his trademark formal rigour with very natural character progression to make cinema that enthralls even as it crushes. This is top notch filmmaking that I thoroughly recommend seeing even if subtitled cinema is “not your thing”. Just be aware that Michael Haneke pulls no dramatic punches. It is said ‘love hurts’, and Amour most definitely does!
Rating: R13 – Content may disturb.
Release date: Thu, 28 Feb 2013
Duration: 126 mins
Genre: Drama, World Cinem
Language: French with English subtitles
Director: Michael Haneke (2012)
With: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell, & Ramón Agirre.
Country: France | Germany | Austria