DIR/WRI: Michael Haneke • PRO: Margaret Ménégoz • DOP: Darius Khondji • ED: Nadine Muse, Monika Willi • DES: Jean-Vincent Puzos • CAST: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud
Retired music teacher Anne, in her 80s, suffers a stroke. She asks her husband to promise her that she will not return to hospital. Her declining condition tests Georges’ abilities to care for her at home and strains their relationships with their daughter.
In Amour, writer-director Michael Haneke (Caché, The White Ribbon) confronts two universal aspects of the human condition: the inevitability of death and our utter dependence on other human beings to survive. He illustrates this universality in an early scene, in which Georges and Anne sit among a concert audience before a piano recital begins. Haneke shows the whole audience in a long take, effectively suggesting that what unfolds could happen to any couple our gaze falls over in the shot.
Haneke establishes equality in the married couple’s relationship with visual symmetry in a breakfast sequence, framing and cutting between talking heads in a balanced manner. This equilibrium breaks down as Anne, the early stages of a stroke taking hold, fails to respond to Georges. Haneke employs static shots, long takes and very little camera movement throughout the film, representing visually the standstill to which the couple comes Anne’s condition confines her to their apartment, and the film remains in that claustrophobic setting.
Despite the limited setting, Haneke builds a network of tense relationships, developing compelling drama. Anne’s daughter Eva objects to Georges’ persistence in caring for Anne at home. Eva struggles to come to terms with her mother’s increasing inability to understand her daughter’s problems, or even to acknowledge her existence. Alexandre, the concert pianist, visits some months after the performance at the film’s beginning. In a letter, he describes his encounter as a sad and beautiful moment; he fails to realise how he challenges Anne’s dignity. Nurses provide both assistance and problems for Georges and Anne.
Haneke’s minimalist style and perhaps too-controlled direction may not have succeeded if it were not for accomplished performances by an excellent cast. Jean-Louis Trintignant (The Conformist, Three Colours Red) plays Georges with skill: his hand, for example, often caresses Anne’s gently, but anxiously. He recounts Georges’ tales of his youth with sincerity. Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima mon amour, Three Colours Blue) has the more physically challenging role. Stoke paralyzes her character’s right side, then confines her to bed. The film chronicles Anne’s decline with naked frankness, and Riva ably registers Anne’s struggle to maintain her dignity. Watching Anne deal with opening a book, or learning to use her powered wheelchair, are among the film’s more spontaneous and touching moments.
Recurring imagery that surrounds these moments is perhaps symbolic: Georges frequently closes windows; he deals with a pigeon trapped in the apartment; and paintings on the wall depict increasingly bleak landscapes with fewer people.
Haneke’s film dissolves the boundaries between dreams and reality, as Georges struggles to cope. He finds himself waking to a corridor flooded with water, or he sees his wife playing the piano, only to turn off the CD player and realise Anne remains confined to bed. Again, the film’s visuals take on the characteristics of Georges’ experience, veering between the real and imagined.
Winner of the 2012 Palme d’Or at Cannes, Amour may be Haneke’s masterpiece. Featuring outstanding performances by two great French actors, the film marries form with content in an emotionally complex work of compassion.
Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
Amour is released on 16th November 2012