Amour (2012) ★★★★★
Dir: Michael Haneke, Aus, Fr, Ger, 127mins
A succinct exchange between retired music teachers Georges (Jean Louis-Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) during Austrian auteur Michael Haneke’s Amour deftly gets to the heart of the matter. The gravely ill Anne, paralysed down one side and confined to a wheel chair, asks why she should carry on living and that she is a burden on her husband. Georges denies this and says that the same fate could befall him. “But imagination and reality have little in common” Anne counters.
Reality is something Haneke never lets the audience escape throughout Amours two-hour running time. Terminal illness on the big screen can often be sentimentalised, a well-meaning but trivialised course in “life lessons”. Tearjerker’s Love Story (1970) and Terms of Endearment (1983) use it as a device to repair dysfunctional families. In comedy The Bucket List (2007) Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson’s cancer patients embark on a road trip to fulfil long-held ambitions. Amour is poignant but unflinching in its depiction. No tearful last-minute reunions or wishes finally granted, simply the truth and a film that tests the limits of its title.
We leave Georges and Anne’s Parisian apartment at the beginning for a concert they attend but remain inside for the remainder of the film. One day at breakfast during conversation Anne suffers a stroke and remains silent for a few minutes. Georges assumes she was playing a joke on him but when Anne comes to she is unable to recall what has just occurred. From this point onwards Anne’s health rapidly declines. Georges cares for her largely by himself, a doctor intermittently calling in to administer medication. The only other visitors to the apartment are their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who desperately wants Anne to be admitted to a care home, and pianist Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), an ex pupil.
This is deceptively simple filmmaking which forces the viewer to confront the scenario by refusing to leave it. Camera movement is minimal; a score is non-existent. The static, contemplative tone allows the two magnificent central performances to breathe. Riva is simply heart breaking in what is an open and physically demanding role. For the majority of the film Anne is mute and struggles to communicate. To see the vitality she exhibits in the opening scene and then subsequent disintegration is painful and humbling to witness. By the end state of mind is conveyed through her eyes, an astonishing fête of acting. Trintignant is an admirable foil as Georges, putting on a stubborn yet optimistic front despite the strenuous demands placed upon him whilst internally battling against the inevitable.
Haneke’s clinical, cool style has been a sticking point for some critics over the years. They argue that he lacks sympathy for protagonists who are one-dimensional which makes identification with them limited, a “pawns in the game” approach. At times such sternness can prove nigh on unbearable. Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon (2009) is a morality play set in a village which alludes to a growing fascist ideology pre World War One. It is a masterfully realised vision, grandiose but art house cinema at its most alienating.
Alternatively Funny Games (1997/2008 US remake), where a middle class family are held hostage and tortured by two young men with no motive, explores screen violence and its consequences forcing the viewer to confront the horror of what they are watching, a riposte to the blasé US portrayal. Playing with conventions and the audience are the primary agenda here but the impact of random brutality, particularly a wonderfully considered scene halfway through, reveals the director’s humanity for his subjects, albeit in a subversive framework.
Amour finds Haneke at his most exposed in what is clearly a very personal film (I believe the death of a close relative inspired him). In this case his style and pacing immerses rather than distances, an emotional, sobering experience. This is gruelling viewing which makes a strong case for the legalisation of euthanasia but yet doesn’t resort to open debate on the subject or for that matter religion and notions of an afterlife. Despite the pervading tone what is absolutely crucial is the relationship between Georges and Anne, their memories of a full, happy life lived together and a bond that can’t be broken despite the severity of what is faced.
Amour is that rarity, a genuinely important film, raw yet tender and honest. Rarely have love and death been contemplated to such a degree on film. Haneke makes you question your own mortality and how many film-makers do that.