Amour (Love)

AMOUR (LOVE). Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, and Alexandre Tharaud. Directed by Michael Haneke. Rated M (Mature themes and infrequent coarse language). 122 min.

This is a heart-wrenching and truly memorable film about love at the end of life for an elderly couple, who have been married for nearly 50 years. Michael Haneke won the Palme d’Or for it at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It is the second time Haneke has won the festival’s main award, having done so in 2008 for “The White Ribbon”. But viewers beware. The film is a devastating cinematic experience.

The film focuses on two elderly people, George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who are both retired music teachers, and they have a daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who lives abroad with her family. Both are in their eighties and enjoy a comfortable retirement existence in Paris. Their life together is active, affectionate, fulfilling, and happy.

Then, one day Anne has a major stroke, followed by a second one, and the love between the couple is strained severely. George struggles to keep looking after Anne as she deteriorates rapidly, and Haneke is unsparing in depicting the daily routines of their altered lives. Anne is confined to a wheelchair, needs help in going to the bathroom, and after her second stroke her cultured speech descends into mumbling. This is a poignant film about a loving relationship that is nearing its end.

Set almost entirely within the couple’s apartment, the movie is totally uncompromising, and extraordinarily personal. It is uncharacteristic of Haneke that he makes relatively little social or political comment about the world outside the apartment that George and Anne inhabit. What matters most to Haneke in this film is the world within, and his characters’ actions are measured precisely by the geography of their physical environment. Through the love that they communicate to each other, we share intimately in their internal world, and we feel their pain acutely.

The performances of Trintigant as George, and Riva as Anne, are outstanding. The dawning awareness in George of something wrong with his wife is captured brilliantly by her vacant stares, and her pouring tea that misses the cup. As Anne’s life ebbs away, so too does her identity, and George becomes terrified that she is leaving him. In all that he shows, Haneke is a master of indirectness. We see faces of people in an audience patiently awaiting events that are not shown, and we become involved in conversations around corners, and behind closed doors. The film is full of intentional, hidden meaning. This is illustrated subtly, for example, by Anne asking her talented, ex-student, Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud) to play a Bagatelle, described formally in musicology as a deceptively simple collection of “small musical elements, where something more is delivered as things are worked out”.

This movie, like all of Haneke’s films exploits our unease and discomfort with certain aspects of humanity. George can’t cope with Anne, and his inability to do so tests his relationship with his daughter, as he becomes too stressed to handle her anxiety.

The moral issue of concern in this movie is the positive stance it takes on killing as a respite for human pain. Death occurs for Anne in a single, swift act by George which, although understandable, is gravely wrong. In doing so, the film picks up a consistent, underlying theme through nearly all of Haneke’s movies – why do we kill?

Haneke’s moral solutions are personal. The movie doesn’t debate the issue of mercy killing, nor does it preach that it should be adopted. Haneke is no stranger to rejecting religious conviction, and his moral stance is obvious from the beginning of the film. There, we see Anne lying dead in her bed, surrounded by flowers, while the opening credits provocatively display the film’s title, “Amour”.

Michael Haneke has brought yet another Masterpiece to the screen. The film is a powerful, moving enactment of defiant love between two human beings, for whom death approaches. It shows beauty in intense suffering and despair, and it is a shattering movie about personal loss.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Transmission Films.

Out February 28th., 2013.