Loyalty to the end
In Amour Michael Haneke has delivered another masterpiece, notable this time for its humanity and sweetness as well as austerity. The latter is a kind of respect, because nobody is allowed to matter in this movie but a dying old woman and the man who cares for her. There are no phone calls, appointments, doctors, or really any scenes outside the couple’s big, comfortable, elegant old Paris apartment, after the first scene. Though this is a grueling and painful watch, it’s also uplifting. “Amour,” love, really is the subject, the ultimate test and ultimate proof of what love is. As Mike D’Angelo puts it in the excellent review he wrote for AV Club from Cannes, where this won the Palme d’Or, this film “movingly illustrates the pragmatic sentiment that Terence Davies inserted into his recent adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, viz. that true love isn’t candy hearts and flowers but wiping someone’s ass when they can no longer do it themselves.” That’s what happens to Anne (Emanuelle Riva), and her husband of many years, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is the person who does the job.
It happens after a concert by Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), focused on Schubert, and he turns out to have been a former student of Anne’s, she and Georges both music teachers, now retired. When they come home, someone has tried to jimmy the lock of their front door — a Haneke-esque clue to impending danger, a reminder perhaps that since they’re both eighty-something, the protective shell outside their existence is eggshell-thin. The next morning at breakfast Anne has a sudden period of catatonia. Tests (we don’t see them) reveal the need for an operation, but it’s not successful, and when she returns from the hospital, begging Georges never to let her go back, she is paralyzed on one side from a stroke and in a wheel chair. Things will go downhill from there. At first Anne’s hair is still beautifully styled, and she can sit up and eat, and talk normally. She asks for photo books and looks at their personal and family record. “It’s beautiful, she says. This long life.”
The specific incidents and scenes are important of course, but it won’t convey much to describe them here. What this is really about is the way Georges remains present, taking on as his one duty caring for his wife, whatever happens. This isn’t only the ultimate test but also beyond him; nurses have to come in part-time. Georges is very nice but he can be mean sometimes, Anne remarks. He is harsh with her once, when she has reached an almost ultimate state of decline and refuses to eat or drink. All Georges is trying to do is to protect Anne from being put in a hospital, or a nursing home, or a hospice, keeping her at home, with him.
It’s also Haneke-esque how harshly others are judged. One caregiver is okay, but the other is deemed worthless. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is well-meaning in her way, but just an annoyance. Other family members are to be avoided. The pianist student who visits and sends a note is found wanting because, not unlike Eva, he fusses improperly. Haneke-esque too is the noble but drastic solution of euthanasia Georges resorts to, to end Anne’s suffering. After another stroke she can’t speak and simple moans “It hurts” all the time, up all night, sleeping mostly during the day. Nothing to be done. Beckett would understand.
Riva’s performance is largely a mechanical one, reproducing the effects of paralysis and mental degeneratioin. To Trintignant, who is 82 and considered himself retired since he did Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train for Patrice Chéreau in 1998, falls the burden of depicting the bravery, the endurance, the steadfastness, the sanity, and the love of this husband. And this the great actor of My Night at Maude’s can do. His own age plays a key part: the actor himself has some difficulty walking, making Georges’ lifting Anne the more heroic.
Amour is realistic, perhaps, compared to Beckett, but stylized, in its choice of this naturally-lit grand appartement bourgeois, in the exclusion of outside annoyances, or locations outside the narrow confines. There are a few depatures: several brief haunting dream sequences and a hallucination; a beautiful opening-up through a series of shots of landscape paintings in the apartment. There is a symbolic stray pigeon that comes in a window from the courtyard, twice. The austerity is a beauty that makes the painfully difficult experience watchable.
This is unmistakeably Haneke, but as D’Angelo notes for the first hour seems unlike him in its sweetness; but then becomes “Haneke-grueling.” The whole film’s tenderness and intimacy are the more striking coming from this director. And though there have been many movies about accidents, illnesses, old age, and death, no one has told this story before, following the experience of the spouse-caregiver through to the end — though the film’s final end, typically for this director, is kept somewhat mysterious. As the Variety reviewer Peter Debruge points out, what happens here is not unlike Haneke’s 1989 debut, The Seventh Continent, but the “unforgiving nihilism” of the earlier film has been replaced “by a sense of deep concern.”
Amour, 127min, debuted at Cannes, has been in other festivals, and was screened for this review as part of the Main Slate of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, Oct. 2012. It opens in France Oct. 24, the UK Nov. 16, US (limited) Dec. 19.
Director: Michael Haneke
Writer: Michael Haneke (screenplay)
Stars: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
Runtime: 127 min
Country: Austria, France, Germany