Knowing that this is director Michael Haneke’s take on love you understand that this isn’t going to be your normal characteristic love story. This is the man who has crafted such films as the ironically titled “Funny Games” and love and joy always seem quite a distance away in his films. His films are also known to be quite cold, emotionally speaking, so just how was he going to tackle the theme of love, in his own characteristic way, of course.
“Amour” is the story of two eighty something people, Georges and Anne, who have been together and married for a lifetime. They both used to be piano teachers in the past and as such have an enjoyment of the arts. They have one daughter between them, Eva, who has followed in her parent’s footsteps in becoming a musician. Although they are getting on in age, Georges and Anne have a healthy and active lifestyle and they still both love and respect each other greatly. When the film opens we see the couple attending a concert being performed by one of Anne’s old students who has since gone on to great things. They are both very impressed by his performance and so proud. It is a beautiful night, and the next morning things are the same as the two have a nice conversation around the breakfast table. Suddenly without warning, Anne stops responding and basically appears as if she is in a trance as she stares into the nothingness in front of her. No matter what Georges does, Anne does not respond. Georges knowing something is wrong, heads to his room to get dressed when suddenly Anne calls out to him, awake from whatever trance she was in. Amazingly she has no memory of the previous few minutes, and Georges suggests taking her to a doctor which she refuses. It is then that her stroke hits fully, and life for Georges and Anne, will never be the same again. The stroke causes paralysis down the right side of her body and she can no longer care for herself. Being terrified of hospitals, Anne makes Georges promise to never to send her to a hospital again, which he agrees to and thus begins the long journey to death, as Georges slaves over his wife, looking after her and making her feel as comfortable as she can, as her condition gets continually worse towards her inevitable death.
I mentioned in my review for “Tabu” that the idea of watching an old lady slowly die for an entirety of a film is not my idea of fun, but “Amour” challenges my perception here, because while I wouldn’t call it entertaining, Haneke proves that if you handle the subject honestly and without sentimentality, it can actually be a riveting cinema experience. What we are witness to is true love, as we watch poor Anne basically revert to a childlike existence, wearing diapers, needing constant care, unable to talk, and Georges does everything in his power to make her life as comfortable as possible, even though seeing his beloved wife like this is causing him immeasurable pain.
“Amour” is an actor’s piece and the two performances from the leads are truly outstanding. Emmanuelle Riva, best known for her work in 1959’s “Hiroshima Mon Armour”, does an amazing task at convincing us that Anne has really had a number of strokes. The way she contorts her body, in what appears a painful manner, and her whole physical look as she deteriorates is amazing. You would think that lying in a bed for the majority of a film would be easy, but the work she does here is paramount to the success of the film, as even though she is unable to communicate as she once did, the emotion in her eyes says it all. This is someone who has had enough and she just wants to die. It is so sad seeing the pain and embarrassment that she feels as her body continually fails her. In a particularly painful scene, we are witness to her ultimate breakdown when she wets the bed for the first time, she is so upset, but Georges thinks nothing of it and goes about cleaning her and her bed. Towards the end of the film, there is a moment when George is listening to some music and he daydreams about Anne playing the piece, and we once again see Emmanuelle Riva as she was at the start of the film back when she was healthy. It is in this moment that it truly hits you how good her performance is.
Jean-Louis Trintignant is just as brilliant as Georges, who may not be going through the same ordeal Anne is, but is in pain no less as he watches the woman he loves deteriorate before his eyes until she is almost unrecognizable. Such is his love that he will not abandon her and send her to a hospital (as he promised), no matter how hard it is for him. This is the true meaning of “til death do us part”. What I liked most about Trintignant’s performance is that he is not sentimental, he isn’t crying constantly, he goes about what he has to do, day in day out, to make Anne more comfortable. He even gets frustrated and angry with her, and you can tell that in his youth he would’ve been a bit of a tough guy, until a shocking moment occurs when he actually strikes her. It is this brief moment of violence that focuses his mind and sets in motion the finale of the film. Like Riva’s performance, Trintignant tells the audience so much through his eyes, as we see him tiring even though he puts on a brave face for his wife and family. Georges actually has a nice little scene with a pigeon near the end of the film that has accidentally entered the house through the window. It is a nice moment away from the pain of the rest of the film, as he captures the bird and “sets it free”.
Being a Haneke film you expect a certain darkness in his stories but his take on love is actually a beautiful, if painful experience. While it is obvious from the opening frame where the story is actually going to go, it does not change the emotional impact that comes with it. One moment that I loved but in retrospect wasn’t sure was totally necessary was an unexpected dream sequence that Georges has. The whole thing feels like reality until it ends, but it is a good moment (I guess Haneke couldn’t resist throwing in a little darkness) even though it doesn’t actually forward the plot. The other superfluous scene is the final one with Isabelle Huppert, which seemed only to be added so those that didn’t understand the scene previous would understand what happened.
Overall, I was very impressed by Michael Haneke’s “Amour”. It was initially a film that I was weary of and feared that I might have been bored while watching due to its subject matter. In fact it was only due to the recognition it had received (“Amour” won the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) that I decided to see it, but I am happy to report that it is recognition well deserved. While it isn’t the most entertaining film you will ever see, it is still a grand emotion experience and very touching.