Amour (2012)

This film about death is all about hanging on to one’s better half and reminds us what intimate cinema is capable of.

AmourFrance
4.5*

Director:
Michael Haneke
Screenwriter:
Michael Haneke
Director of Photography:
Darius Khondji

Running time: 127 minutes

For most of Amour, the viewer feels absolutely confident she is in the presence of greatness. This is what a film looks like that takes its subject seriously and tries to present it in all its complexity through small moments that all have a very human dimension to them. The human dimension is born out of an intimacy that depends on the chemistry between and very likely also the life experience of the lead actors. And yet, these moments are immediately accessible to those of us who have only had a taste of the life depicted onscreen.

Jean-Louis Trintignant basically came out of retirement to take the role of the octogenarian Georges, whose wife, Anne, played by Emmanuelle Riva, has had a stroke but refuses to be hospitalised. They are both former music teachers and live in a comfortable apartment in the middle of Paris. In one of their first conversations, after attending a music concert, they speak passionately and with erudition about the music they heard.

At first, Georges cares for her and helps her to get into her wheelchair. But gradually her condition worsens, until she has another stroke and becomes nearly incapacitated.

How does a lifelong partner deal with this sudden change? The question is made all the more urgent and unnerving by Haneke’s sudden acceleration of the timeline in unannounced fashion. There are no supertitles to indicate the passage of time: Again and again, Anne’s condition has suddenly deteriorated again, and we are shocked every single time we become aware how much farther down the slope of mortality she has slid once more, and that there is no way back up.

Haneke shoots many of his scenes in single takes and all but eschews the use of close-ups. The film’s characters are thoroughly respected, with two small exceptions. In one of the film’s first scenes, at the breakfast table in the kitchen, at the moment when we realise what will be the beginning of the end, Haneke is a little too rough in his treatment of Anne. The moment itself, the first revelation that something is wrong (we later learn something was obstructing her carotid artery, causing her to switch off for a moment), is perfectly controlled, balanced between tenderness and tension, but the scene could have done without a final pouring of the tea into the saucer rather than the cup — something that emphasises without a shadow of a doubt that things will soon go downhill very quickly.

There is also the matter of a character not properly developed, only to serve as a vessel to elicit our emotion for Anne and her plight: the second nurse who comes to take care of her. She quickly shows her true colours as an arrogant uncaring little snip; her brief appearance and a particularly hurtful exchange with Georges feels like a typical Haneke moment in which evil is revealed to be embedded in society, and he obviously enjoys pushing the knife just that little bit more into our stomachs, though frankly this was quite unnecessary. His subject matter is already powerful enough.

But the film is magnificent. It is a restrained piece of work that is set almost entirely inside the old couple’s flat and unwinds at Haneke’s leisurely pace inside scenes but frighteningly quickly from one scene to the next. Despite a feeling the film may at times be slightly jumpy, there is no disputing that it is consistently effective.

Amour does not venture into the generalities of the care of the elderly, but it does address a number of pertinent issues, including the unspoken pity the world has for this kind of situation, a pity that Haneke himself was probably banking on while making this film.

But there is a complete lack of cheap tricks to tug at our heart strings. Trintignant and Riva bring with them many decades of experience not only in acting but in living; their characters’ gentle interaction, their frustration with the limitations of old age and the steadfast determination to still have a say in their own lives despite the intervention of different kinds of unexpected forces on their lives make them both strong and fragile at the same time. This kind of complexity is what the cinema often lacks, and what Haneke, Trintignant and Riva have brought to the screen with care and commitment.

Only towards the end does Haneke’s evident fear of a straightforward conclusion or an easy explanation strain the experience a little, but it is a very minor flaw in an otherwise first-rate film about perseverance in love and coping with the inevitability of death

Amour is personal, intimate and, together with The White Ribbon, one of Haneke’s least intellectual and most accessible films to date.

 

This is a slightly modified version of the writer’s review that first appeared in The Prague Post.

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