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As I was heading through the rain to see Michael Haneke’s latest film, Amour, I sent a text to a friend that read, ‘Off to be bludgeoned by Haneke’s latest oeuvre.’ I was only half joking as there is an element of masochism involved in watching his work. It is the sort of masochism, however, that I personally welcome. I have been a Haneke fan for a long time, and I stand by his earlier, sensationalist and violent films like Benny’s Video and Funny Games, but I have found his more recent work, such as Caché and The White Ribbon more measured and in some ways more profound. Amour certainly follows on from the latter two films.
The silence of the opening credits, in stark black and white, gives way to a loud crack as a rescue team bash down the door of a bourgeois Parisian flat. We are led through the apartment until we are confronted with the dead body of an old woman lying Ophelia-like in a halo of petals. Then, as the word ‘Amour’ flashes up on screen, you know immediately that you are in the hands of someone who has something important to say.
Over the next two hours the story of how the dead woman came to be alone and strewn with flowers slowly unfolds. This, for want of a better word, is the plot of the film. But to talk about Amour in terms of plotting would be ridiculous—like discussing a Rembrandt portrait in terms of what the sitter ate for breakfast.
The structure of the film is formed—like that of a Greek drama—from what we already know: the characters in the film, like us, are going to die. The uncertainties along this trajectory lie in the exact details of death. And this film is replete with details. The visual precision in some of Haneke’s mise-en-scènes is reminiscent of the heightened realism of an Andreas Gursky or Robert Polidori photograph. You cannot help but scan each scene for clues of what is to come. Often with Haneke, the power of his images lies in what we are not yet able to see—think back to the last shot of Caché.
Amour’s scope is so majestic, so monumental, and yet so utterly human, that a comparison with Rembrandt does not feel out of place. What Haneke gives us is an almost anthropological study of how we love, and how we live out our daily rituals, tribulations, humiliations and small acts of kindness. And in his forensic detail I recalled the Bergman of Scenes from a Marriage or the Ozu of Tokyo Story.
The heart of the film is the relationship between its two central characters, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintingnant), who are an octogenarian couple on the cusp of infirmity. We see them in their small, lived-in Paris kitchen eating lunch, in their rather grand book-lined living room listening to music, but mostly we hear them in Rohmeresque levels of conversation. Trintingnant also played a central role in Rohmer’s 1969 small-scale masterpiece Ma Nuit Chez Maude, but where Rohmer’s concerns are the intellectual questions of youth, here Haneke faces old age square on and asks: what’s it all for? Riva and Trintingnant’s performances are unstudied, natural and pitch-perfect. One does not only feel the weight of their pasts as great aging actors, but also that of the challenge brought on by this type of serious, demanding cinema.
Every scene in the film reveals varying layers of human frailty or strength: whether it is the couple’s daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), helplessly sobbing and throwing advice at Georges on how to “fix” her mother’s condition; or Anne’s grown-up music student returning unexpectedly for a visit, but being unable to cope with her infirmity; or Georges simply taking Anne’s hand in a gesture of kindly hopelessness.
When Anne returns from hospital after her first stroke, the couple’s previously comfortable bubble of cultured bourgeois existence is burst, although it takes them some time to realise it. In a scene towards the beginning of the film, Georges notices that their door has been tampered with by what they suspect might have been a burglar. There is a suggestion that danger is lurking somewhere, and I was reminded of the ominous stalker in Caché—yet the intruder here is none other than illness and death.
We see that Anne is no longer able to walk unaided, and Georges must lift her and manoeuvre her into chairs, off the toilet, in and out of bed. Their movements are a macabre replica of the dance of death, as he holds her close and moves her body around. These clumsy and uncomfortable shuffles are rendered all the more poignant in the knowledge that their physical intimacy once stemmed from desire, not duty. Eva, who we sense feels shut out from her parents’ love, tells her father she used to hear them having sex when she was a child and it made her feel reassured that they would always be together. They are in fact still ‘together’, but divided in facing their own futures against the solitary backdrop of their own mortality.
As Anne’s condition deteriorates we see how keeping her alive actually becomes an act of aggression. The roles of husband and wife are reversed and Haneke seems to hint that in fact Georges needs Anne more than she needs him. Her dignity rapidly and quietly disappearing, she is ready to go; but he is not prepared for this ultimate separation. At this point Haneke gives us the one major dramatic moment in the film, which is reminiscent of Sophocles for its sheer honesty, rawness and shocking effect.
This film is perhaps the antithesis of how most popular films respond to the brevity of life. It is not a Peggy Lee-like summons to “dance and drink and have a ball because life is short”. Instead it feels as if Haneke is saying, “Look how much life is lived inside these four walls. There’s a whole universe right in here.” In one scene Anne demands to look at their photo albums rather inappropriately in the middle of lunch, and George duly fetches them. Anne flips through the pages noisily with her one good hand while George concentrates on his lunch, perhaps trying to focus on what little life he has ahead rather than accepting that all he has left is what has been frozen in the past. Anne, gazing at these photographs exclaims, “It’s so beautiful life—and so long.” You feel the acuteness of this moment, of these two people locked in their own personal, yet universal little tragedy.
The ultimate irony however is that these two elderly musicians rattling around their art-filled flat both independently reach a point where art can no longer give consolation. At different moments in the film they switch off the Schubert they have loved and used for succour all their lives. Yet, what they cannot bear, is exactly what this film is: the succour we need to remind us that death, like life, is what binds us. The beauty of this film and its ability to transport us to a place of transcendence is the very same beauty in a Schubert Impromptu. We need Haneke to remind us that in this devastating truth also lies immense grace. This film is not just a powerful, daring, intelligent and moving piece of work. It is utterly necessary.