Michael Haneke has made a Michael Haneke film for those of us who don’t like Michael Haneke films. To use a cliche that lends itself to the film’s title, it seems he’s finally learnt not to rely on that big, powerfully-tuned head, but to use his heart instead.
The former films that made his name – the two versions of Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, Caché, Time of the Wolf – are always high-minded, composite and severe, but also violent, cynical and knotted in suggested malevolence. These films seem dominated by the director’s hang-ups; the complacency with which we absorb consumable renderings of violence, sex and death, about the yawning dislocation between style and realism, about the rendering-down of horror. Haneke was suspended above it all, statuesque in his austerity, like an ice-cool Antonin Artaud holding a mirror to our worst selves. And then, Haneke gave us Amour, as formal and measured as ever, but almost overwhelming in its simple truths, its humanity and its concern for the small tragedies that come to define normal lives.
Amour – which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival – stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as Georges and Anne, an elderly, elegant couple who live together in a stately apartment high-up in a Parisian suburb. We meet them returning from the opera. “If you don’t mind me saying, you looked lovely tonight,” Georges tell her as helps with her coat. “What’s got into you,” Anne responds. Over breakfast the next morning, Anne loses her perception – she remains deadly still, her eyes wide but completely unresponsive as her husband remonstrates with her. It is, we quickly learn, the beginnings of a series of strokes.
The film never ventures out of the confines of their home. Scenes are left to unspool, minute after minute, never a spare cut, a loose angle, as we watch with unsparing immediacy her health deteriorate, the loss of her ability to communicate with her husband, to wash and dress herself, to express pain.
So enters the daughter Eva, played by Isabelle Huppert. Racked with guilt at her absence and desperate to act, she’s a terrible foil to Georges’ understanding of what confronts them. “What happens now,” she demands from her father. “It will go downhill for a while,” he answers gently. “And then it will be over.” Yet despite this deliberation, Georges is not resigned. Although he must struggle to do what came so naturally, he is still capable of showing his wife how he feels about her. He acts as the gatekeeper between her – and us – and something terrifying, powerful and alien, even in its familiarity.
This is the creation of a 70-year-old who has searched long and found an equilibrium with life, but is yet to settle into the calm of retirement. Haneke has somehow found himself capable of looking mortality straight in the eye. The result is a profound and compassionate evocation of our deepest-felt experiences, and quite possibly a once in a lifetime piece of cinema.
Amour is released in cinemas today…
Text: Tom Seymour