Reviewed by Rhea Cinna
Michael Haneke’s most recent film, Amour, is probably his most lauded creation if we are to trust the frenzy it has caused in most major festivals, but more than that, by his own admission, one of his most personal. Amour, like the concept behind it and the title itself, is both complex in its ramifications and simple in its choices. At the center of the film is a couple of octogenarian piano teachers, living a tranquil existence in loving harmony. This is one of those painfully rare couples that give all the rest of us false expectations about relationships — their daughter mentions that as a child she felt reassured by the endurance of their love, after casually recounting her own up-and-down relationship with her husband. The beginning of the film shows quite aptly that romance and flirting are still possible even in your eighties, and there’s nothing like Anne (Emanuelle Riva)’s almost-schoolgirl-like giggling or Georges’ (Jean Louis Trintignant) cheeky yet gallant responses to convince you of this fact. “You are a monster sometimes, but you are nice,” Anne laughingly tells Georges, but we soon find that Georges’ most predominant quality is his devotion to Anne.
Haneke has never been a director to intervene much in the storytelling by use of technical gimmicks. As such, the editing is sharp but not fast-paced and the few seemingly sudden cuts here and there serve to move the story forward and create atmosphere. The film is almost lacking in any musical score, save for a few classical bits that play in specific contexts. Instead, as always, Haneke prefers an objective, detached approach (some may even accuse him of coldness and wouldn’t be too wrong in doing so, although this particular film has a surprising amount of tenderness instilled within the story to make up for Haneke’s directorial curtness), letting the story and the characters speak for themselves. But in order for such a thing to work to the extent that it does in most of Haneke’s films, one needs an amazing amount of advance preparation, not to mention some top grade actors, and it would be interesting to know what kind of rehearsals go on behind the scenes of Haneke’s masterworks in order to achieve the level of smoothness and precision his films exhibit. Take the scene near the beginning of the film where the camera focuses on the audience of a classical music concert for almost two minutes. One can focus on any one of the characters in the audience and have a hard time finding any of the slip-ups generally visible in crowd scenes full of extras. It’s just an example of how Haneke’s films work. The most unassuming of scenes is in fact carefully choreographed to fulfill a certain role, and within the complex of the film, nothing is extraneous.
Amour is a study on how illness and its effects on those involved, at an age when the ability to adapt isn’t quite at its peak, can take an incredible toll. We follow the two main characters through their descent into the most terrifying helplessness. Praising the lead performances would be an act of redundancy at this point, and few actors could manage the degree of realness that Riva and Trintignant bring forth with their every gesture. What’s interesting is the layering of reactions and behaviors based on the degree of closeness (or separation) the side characters have with the couple’s situation. From the former pupil who shows inadvertent tactlessness through his act of kindness, to the daughter who shows concern and decries the lack of solutions but leaves when her planned visiting days are over and is ultimately, despite her better intentions, too detached and caught up in her own life to even be close to being an insider, to the nurses who take caring for Anne as their job and perform it mechanically, with a certain roughness that contrasts Georges’ gentle care. In fact, well intentioned as those around the two may be, it is only the inhabitants of the apartment that understand the true burden and desperation that comes from being in their situation – every interaction with someone from the outside only confirming this further. “Don’t you realize that we’re worried?” daughter Eva asks Georges, alarmed by his not picking up the phone for days. “Your worries are of no use to me,” he replies, drawing a firm line between them. It’s not a criticism, as he hurries to say, he begrudges no-one their level of involvement and understands they all mean well, it’s just that he also realizes they could never understand the situation he is finding himself in.
The conclusion, partly announced from the very beginning, could still feel shocking, but, at the same time, isn’t, as the story flows in the most natural progression within its established parameters. It could spur any number of discussions and controversies, but looking at Jean Louis Trintignant’s disheveled face, trembling hands and disconcerted eyes should be enough to appease naysayers. After all, this is a story of love and human dignity in the face of crippling helplessness. Haneke himself seems to have based the story and setting on some of his own personal experiences, which could well justify the feeling of authenticity of the film.
Rhea Cinna is Senior Film Critic for the magazine.