Michael Haneke’s films tend towards the bone-chilling. They are sedately, or at least evenly, paced. They have an intoxicating, heady strangeness and are rarely less than gripping. When they are masterful it is because of, not despite, their formalism and austerity. In Funny Games (1997) Haneke achieved the remarkable feat of making a brilliantly compelling yet deeply disturbing horror film that is also a savage deconstruction and tongue-in-cheek take-down of the genre itself. (Later, rather than let the film be bastardised in an American version taken out of his hands, he made an exact-replica, shot-by-shot English-language remake.) In the less accomplished but more palatable Caché (2005), whose psychological engine runs on paranoia rather than violence, the languid, blandly lit cinematography is offset by the rising sense of menace. In the very fine The White Ribbon (2009) – a foreboding, disquiet-inducing pre-Nazi fairytale – the off-kilter, escalating menace becomes so tight, so heightened, that Caché seems mere practice in comparison.
In Haneke’s world, there’s always a sense of an imminent axe about to land, of a presence forever just outside our field of vision, threatening to annihilate us: whether it’s the violent intruders of Funny Games, the implied voyeur in Caché, the children imagined as future National Socialists in The White Ribbon, or the razor of self-loathing in The Piano Teacher (2001). Now, in Amour (in national release), a harrowing tale from which the frenetic is entirely absent, the outside force, the annihilator, is no less a personage than Death himself. And yet, as the title suggests unironically, the engine here runs on love. The result is a difficult, confronting film that is also haunting and beautiful.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emanuelle Riva) are an urbane Parisian couple in their 80s, retired music teachers, living in an apartment that speaks of warmth, culture, books, music. Early in the film they attend a music recital given by one of Anne’s former pupils, a now-famous pianist. They’re proud of him. They return home, excited.
“Did I mention you looked very pretty tonight?” asks Georges.
“What’s gotten into you?” she laughs.
It’s a tender moment of youthful love – of new love, even. In simple tableaux, Haneke sets up an enormously rich backstory for the couple. Their lives are filled with art. They are dedicated to the cause of one another. They have a kind of substance, a weight: we sense the cumulative minutiae of the decades.
Then Anne has a stroke at the kitchen table. The “attack” is subtle, at first. For just a second, it seems she has merely vagued out. As the blankness continues, Georges becomes worried. For some moments it looks as if only her body is present. She comes back into the moment, back into her consciousness, and nothing will ever be the same again. Amour becomes a film whose sole purpose seems to be to watch at agonisingly close range what most other films avoid: the relentless, remorseless decay of the human being as death moves in to claim it.
The couple’s daughter is Eva (Isabelle Huppert), also a musician, who has not lived in France for a long time. She returns. She’s prickly, cool. Anne suffers a second stroke, and begins to decline more rapidly. On a subsequent visit Eva rails against her father. Can he cope? Shouldn’t Anne be put into a home? But Georges has made a pact with Anne: after the second stroke, she makes him promise she will never go back into the hospital. Georges will try to protect and maintain Anne’s dignity, even at the expense of his daughter’s feelings. “I presume you understand that I love your mother as much as you do,” he says to Eva. “Don’t treat me like a moron.”
Eva is confronted by her mother’s suffering, her verbal decline. At Anne’s bedside, she babbles vacuously about her husband’s investment portfolio back in England, then emerges in tears, telling Georges, in an accusatory tone, “She’s talking gibberish.” For Georges, there is business to attend to, and that business, as far as he is concerned, no longer involves his daughter. He must see his life with his wife through to the end. To do so, it’s as if he needs to turn Eva away. “You have your life and that’s fine,” he says. “Leave us ours.” When she professes her right to her own concern, he cuts her off: “Your concern is no use to me.”
Alone, with Anne, the twilight deepens, and Haneke’s very still camera never flinches, even as we see Georges help Anne off the toilet and pull up her underpants, even as she loses the power to eat, and read, even as her eyes flash angrily. “I don’t want to go on,” she says, while she still has the capacity to say it. When Georges tries to deflect the comment, she hammers the point home: “For my sake, not yours.”
There are moments of alleviation. Anne whirls in circles as she tests her new electric wheelchair; the pair giggle. They leaf through a photo album, at Anne’s request. “It’s beautiful,” she says, struggling with the words. “What?” asks Georges. “Life,” says Anne. “So … long. Long life.” Later, he tries to sing to her: “On the Pont d’Avignon / We dance, we dance.”
“You,” Anne says to him at one moment in his bedside vigil, in one of her last coherent statements. There’s a mischievous twinkle in her eye, and the hint of a smile on her lopsided mouth. “You.” She purses her lips, imitating a haughty person. “Very serious.” “Yes,” agrees Georges. “I was very uptight.” “Yes. Uptight,” she smiles tenderly.
“It was … nice,” she adds, as if running out of air. She leaves the words hanging; it feels as if she might simply be trying to say, “It was nice, nonetheless, being together.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a movie that so uncomfortably parses the physical awkwardness of old age and the slow, implacable decay of the human body. In reviewing films, I try to see them two or three times, yet for a couple of weeks I found myself resisting and avoiding the second viewing of Amour. I recognised the film’s craft, but found its bleakness hard to stomach. It’s an extraordinarily sad, confronting film. We see the human spirit becoming animal. We see the animal becoming vegetable. Once Anne stops talking, there seems only anger in her eyes. And then, beyond a certain point, bewilderment.
Of course, Haneke being Haneke, his portrayal of Anne’s rapid deterioration in the second half of the film has the weird effect of making it feel like an actual, edge-of-seat thriller. Viewed dispassionately, Amour is a story of hope, if not a shining love story. It shows us unconditional love taken to its logical extreme.
It’s a platitude to say that film, viewed as celluloid zeitgeist, mirrors life – intentionally or otherwise. American film tends to reflect a lot of chaos and white noise. But Amour’s very austerity mirrors the part of the subjective human experience that flows at more subterranean levels. It’s what makes a film like this deeply uncommercial, certainly in terms of the American model.
It’s also what makes it worth watching. Amour may be the first Haneke film to carry a positive message, albeit one submerged in the ruins of mortality. Be brave, it seems to say, because if you are brave enough to walk in the shoes of true love, all will be okay. It will be ugly, and messy, and not like it says in the books. But it will be real.
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