Michael Haneke’s films are stark and merciless. In La Pianiste, a woman lives in an emotional prison, sharing a life, an apartment and even a bed with her elderly mother. Love, when it comes, is torture. In Caché, a man’s comfortable family life crumbles under the threat of scrutiny. As intimate as both those films are, they don’t come close to the stripped down relentlessness of Amour. Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be. And then you die.
On the surface, Amour is about an elderly couple struggling with the consequences of the wife’s stroke. Under the surface, it is still that. Decline to the power of two. There are no jokes, no quirky characters, no fancy plot dekes, not even much in the way of dialogue. There is just Georges and Anna. And if you can hold your gaze, as they do, the rewards are magnificent.
Early in the film, in a scene that lasts long minutes, an audience seats itself for a piano recital (given by a former student of Anna’s). The camera watches from the stage, a wide shot where no one in particular is in focus. We don’t know who we are supposed to be looking at, so we look at everyone. And they look at us. Then the music starts and the lights dim.
Afterwards, an elderly couple from the previous shot make their way home. They ride the bus, walk slowly along the streets, enter their apartment building, shuffling in comfortable silence. They are Georges and Anna, a couple of few words and many routines.
Scenes of quiet coexistence come and go, much of it in steady longshots, muted colours and no ambient soundtrack. Debilitated by an almost imperceptible stroke – Georges thinks she’s playing a prank – Anna’s decline is slow but definitive. She goes to the hospital, but the experience is so traumatic that Georges decides he can take care of her at home. He helps her in and out of the bed, on and off the wheelchair, and they hold on to each other tightly, afraid to let go. Stripped down to their mutual need for each other, their bodies pull together out of memory and habit. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, giants of 1950s and 60s French new wave cinema, give brave and naked performances that are absolutely mesmerizing.
This is a profoundly, almost shockingly, unsentimental film. Georges, exasperated that his wife refuses to eat, slaps her. Anna, looking through old photo albums in moments of lucidity, is only slightly bemused. “Life is long,” is all she says. The words je t’aime never pass anyone’s lips.
Even Isabelle Huppert, full of prim distractions as their adult daughter, brings no relief to the Vermeer monotony of their apartment. If anything, she is an annoyance. George resents her intrusions; she’d rather prattle on about her travels, her work, her philandering husband than consider entering the intimate space held by her parents.
Not that she’s ever really invited. Because this is a Haneke film, or maybe just because this is the Parisian bourgeoisie, everyone conducts themselves with a baffling degree of restraint, guarding their emotional froideur like badges of honour. Personally, I found it so off-putting and even confusing that for the longest time I wondered if there wasn’t a large amount of irony in the title. Is this about an old couple who actually don’t feel love? Accustomed to a game of charades writ large and long?
Maybe there’s a little bit of that there. But the innevitable impact of the film is so powerful and enveloping that you finally understand that this starkness is not cynicism but its exact opposite. It bears witness to the absolute absence of dignity that comes with devotion and love. That’s what Hollywood films, and almost everyone else, consistently gets wrong. To love fully is to take great risks and endure great suffering. When all you can do for the woman you love is lay cut flowers over her dead body (no spoiler alert here; this is the film’s opening scene), that’s nothing if not horrible and humbling.
The magnificent ruin of Georges’ and Anna’s lives is devastating. But if you want to heighten it even more, give it a strange cinematic depth, watch clips from the early films of Jean-Louis Trintingnant and Emmanuelle Riva. I suggest A Man and Woman and Hiroshima, Mon Amour. Doubled back like that, seeing them each at the peak of their sensuality and power, only deepens the pathos of Amour. And I bet Haneke is counting on that, too.
Leila Marshy is Editor of The Rover.