Directed by: Michael Haneke.
Written by: Michael Haneke.
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant (Georges), Emmanuelle Riva (Anne), Isabelle Huppert (Eva), Alexandre Tharaud (Alexandre), William Shimell (Geoff).
Michael Haneke has made a career out of punishing his characters and by extension the audience, for their sins. From the parents of the deranged Benny in Benny’s Video to everyone in Code Unknown, to Daniel Auteuil’s in Cache to the entire village in The White Ribbon and in most of his other films, in a Haneke film the past is never forgotten, and those past sins eventually catch up with everyone. And Haneke has never let viewers off the hook either – he directly blames them for all the violence in both versions of Funny Games, and holds nations responsible for their past in other films. While many critics have seen his latest film, Amour, as a more humanist side to Haneke – a film where he finally feels warmth for his characters, I am not convinced this is the case. True, the old married couple at the heart of Amour have no past sins (that we know about) to atone for – but they are still punished quite thoroughly. The only thing they really do wrong is grow old – and Amour lays bare exactly what happens to them because of it – and by extension what will happen to everyone in the audience one day as well. So while it some ways, Amour really is the “warmest” film that Haneke has ever made, in other ways it’s the cruelest – his characters get punished much like they have in the past, but this time they haven’t really done anything wrong.
The film opens with a seemingly happy Paris couple in their 80s coming home from a concert. They have been married for years, and still seem very much in love. The next morning they wake up and have breakfast together. Everything is going normally until Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) stops responding to Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignat). He tries everything, and nothing can get her to snap out of it, until suddenly she does. She has no memory of what happened, and thinks he is playing a cruel trick on her. They go to the doctor, and discover she has had a stroke. And for the rest of the movie, she will slowly deteriorate – and he will be there every step of the way trying to take of her.
The movie takes place almost entirely in their apartment – and they have few visitors. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) stops by occasionally – and disapproves of how Georges is handling everything but he doesn’t really care. He promised Anne he would never take her back to the hospital, and he means to keep that promise. They have a nurse, and later a second nurse, come over to help take care of Anne, but Georges fires one of them in one of the harshest scenes in the movie. He doesn’t approve of how she was treating Anne – and when she complains he tells her “I hope one day someone treats you like you treat your patients when you cannot defend yourself”. Anne wants to die – talks about it a lot until she can barely speak at all (then she just repeats “Hurts” for hours on end). She even tries to stop eating by refusing to swallow anything Georges feeds her – leading to a moment that is as sudden and shocking as the suicide in Cache.
Amour is not an easy film – nor is it meant to be. Most of the movie is the day to day routine that Georges and Anne go through – shot by Haneke is his typically cold, detached style as the camera simply sits back and observes the two of them. It is an honest film however – anyone who has been around someone slowly dying could tell you that. The performances here – perhaps more than any other Haneke film – are key to the movie’s success. Emmanuelle Riva may have the simpler role, as she has to waste away and slowly die, but it is a brave performance, and Riva and Haneke pull no punches here. This is not one of those movies where the woman dies of some mysterious disease that somehow makes them more beautiful as they die (I think it’s called Love Story syndrome). Riva’s physical transformation is shocking. And she completely and utterly nails the behavior and speech patterns of a stroke victim. But Jean-Louis Trintignant is even better, as the man who has to watch his wife slowly dissolve into nothing. When the movie begins, he seems like such a nice guy, but while you could argue that everything he does in the movie is understandable, and motivated mainly by love, you could also argue that he behaves selfishly – and at times even acts like a child. It’s probably too much to ask for, but both Trintignant and Riva deserve Oscar nominations this year for their amazing performances here.
Reading some of the reviews of Amour coming out of Cannes (where the film won the Palme D’or – placing Haneke is very exclusive company of directors who have won the award twice) I was worried that perhaps Haneke had gone soft on us. But Amour is hardly a soft film. Yes, he gives he feels more for the characters in this film than he has in the past – but he still punishes them – and the audience, and makes us watch. This is a difficult film to watch – but a brilliant one.