Focusing on the lives of an elderly couple and the strain their relationship undergoes after one of them suffers a mild stroke, AMOUR is one of the most powerfully moving, emotionally devastating pieces of cinema ever made. From one of, if not the greatest director working today â MICHAEL HANEKE. Winner of the 2012 Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
The story follows Anne's last months after she has two minor strokes. The performances, especially Emmanuelle Riva's are extraordinary, but what is most note-worthy is Michael Haneke's unflinching technique of delivering such a powerful and emotional story. Tears have no place in Amour, unless they're out of Anne's frustration. The story is almost too straightforward, not spoon-feeding the watcher, allowing them to contribute their own emotions and thus forming that viewing experience that is so rare to achieve - no doubt a strong reason behind the film's many nominations and awards. (However, I thought the metaphor of setting the pigeon free in the end was perhaps a cliche the director made as a concession to the mass audience at the expense of the critics).
The soundtrack - composed by French pianist Alexandre Tharaud who star-guests in the movie as Georges' and Anne's piano student - is nothing short of superb.
Amour (2012) is Austrian director Michael Haneke's 11th feature film and one would be hard-pressed to think of another filmmaker whose output has been so consistently accomplished, so sharply challenging, so intellectually rigorous and so profound over such a long period of time. The man has not made a bad film! The consistency has been so staggeringly high that it's impossible to pick out one above the other. Even his remakes (2007's Funny Games US) are on the same extraordinary high level. With each film Haneke explores a different social area with breathtaking incision. At the risk of being simplistic, whether the subject be bourgeois inertia (The Seventh Continent), the media (71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance), family (Benny's Video), violence (Funny Games), racial/social integration (Code Unknown), pornography/sexual repression (The Piano Teacher), the Apocalypse (Time of the Wolf), personal relationships (Hidden) or the origins of fascism (The White Ribbon), Haneke always applies the scalpel to revelatory effect. His approach is severe, cold, cerebral, anti-commercial, arrogant. Some people hate this man's films for being so damned uncomfortable to watch and it is fair comment that the almost complete lack of humor can sometimes be a problem. The only other director comparable to him would be that other master of humorlessness, Robert Bresson. But where the great French director had terrible trouble finding funds to make his masterpieces having to wait for the French New Wave to 'discover' him, Haneke has no trouble attaining funds and kudos in equal measure. Every film he makes invariably gets showered with awards, his last two features picking up the Cannes Palme d'Or. Amour even picked up an Oscar for best foreign film (and was nominated in the main category as well). Where Bresson had to struggle, Haneke has only to choose his subject, do his thing and the acclaim comes pouring in. For a director who is so uncompromisingly and aggressively anti-commercial this is surely unique in the world today.
I have waited a long time to see a film tackle the thorny subject of old age, illness and death with complete honesty. With Amour finally we have something which can be put alongside Tokyo Story (1953, Ozu Yasujiro), and not be found wanting. An extraordinary achievement, it tells a story sadly familiar to many of us. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are an octogenarian married couple. Retired music teachers, they share an apartment in Paris and enjoy a loving relationship. One morning Anne goes blank at the breakfast table. She has suffered a stroke. Medical tests confirm she needs an operation. The operation goes wrong and her right side is paralyzed. Anne makes Georges promise never to take her back to the hospital. It is clear that she will never recover and the film charts her painful decline (in unflinching detail) as Georges endeavors valiantly to care for her in the apartment until the very end.
Stated so baldly, one might ask, 'why on earth would anyone want to watch this?' and indeed Trintignant freely admits in an interview on this DVD that he for one would rather pass. For Haneke though, clearly death and the way humans react to it is just as much a part of life as any of the other social issues he has tackled before and is therefore more than worthy subject matter. An important difference with this film though, is that the material is unusually personal for the director. An artist of integrity, he clearly feels that he couldn't dare essay such a subject without having experienced the emotions he deals with himself at first hand. As Philippe Rouyer (author of the book Haneke by Haneke) explains in an introduction on this DVD, the film is partly based on Haneke's boyhood experience of being raised by his aunt. He had saved her from committing suicide once, but was unable to do so a second time. The apartment that we see in the film is a studio set (the glimpses of Paris we see through the windows are green-screened computer graphics) and the lay out is exactly the same as his parents' apartment. The script (which was carefully crafted by Haneke himself with absolutely no leeway for improvisation from the actors) features autobiography - the stories Georges relates to Anne to alleviate her suffering are stories from the director's own childhood. Also, the promise Georges makes to Anne to never let her die in a hospital or home is identical to the mutual promise Haneke and his wife have made in real life. In short, Michael Haneke has been there and seen it all. The emotions transmitted in the film are extraordinarily honest as a consequence.
For a film of such personal significance it was important for Haneke to deploy actors who were absolutely right for their roles. Trintignant's voice and his eyes were the attraction here and they are used astoundingly by both actor and director alike throughout. There is not a trace of artifice as we sense that Haneke absolutely wrote the film for him in much the same way as Hidden was written for Daniel Auteuil. Riva is also astonishing, cast partly because of the director's attachment to Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959, Alain Resnais), but also again because of those eyes and that screen presence. She also happened to live in Paris which helped. Casting is perfect down to the smallest roles. Isabelle Huppert does well with her few scenes as Eva, the daughter who tries to help, but is really powerless to intervene. In one sense the film is about music. Haneke did think about titling it The Music Stops. Huppert was of course the piano teacher in the 2001 film of the same name while other roles go to real life musicians - opera singer William Shimell as Eva's English husband Geoff and pianist Alexandre Tharaud playing himself.
So what does Haneke give us here apart from lingering death? Well, the answer lies in the title. It is incontrovertibly a love story, quite possibly the most moving ever put on film, and the question that keeps being asked throughout is how do you cope when the person you love (the person you can't possibly ever imagine being separated from) slowly dies in front of you? The answer for Georges (as for all lovers) is the exclusion of all others and a selfless dedication to his partner. Their daughter Eva is close. There is no doubting the mutual love between her and her parents, but when it comes down to dealing with mortality, the matter is entirely between her parents and ultimately nothing to do with her. This exclusion is something rarely if ever acknowledged on film and it's to Haneke's great credit that he features it so strongly.
The love story is subtly rendered from the start of the film onwards. The film opens with the door of the apartment being forced and the police entering to find Anne's dead body embroidered with flowers lying on the bed. The next scene takes us back a few months and out of the apartment for the first and only time in the film as we go the theater. The camera stares at the audience from the point of view of the stage and (as in the famous final shot of Hidden) it is only slowly, gradually that we can pick out Georges and Anne sitting in the middle of the audience. The piano recital begins and it is a Schubert impromptu, the opening notes of which announcing the profound desolation that is about to engulf the couple in the narrative. For the first and last time in the film the music continues across shots as we see the old couple greet the pianist (her old student) after the concert and then sit on a bus taking them home. The way they relate to each other, the way their bodies act and react we know this is a couple deeply in love. As the film develops, Anne's decline is mirrored by the increasing severity with which all intruders are excluded from their lives - the concerned neighbors, the nurses, Eva and her husband, the pianist Alexandre Tharaud. Georges' absolute devotion is shown when he ejects an insensitive care worker and then refuses to let Eva in to see her mother. Eva is upset at her exclusion, but when Anne comes to she makes it clear she doesn't want her daughter in the room. Aggressive guarding of privacy and an absolute bond with each other are what drives the couple. It is Georges' intention to provide for his wife exactly as she requests and he delivers on his promises in no uncertain terms. Everything he does, he does for love and the emotional wringer through which he is pulled works inexorably on his body and soul.
It is to Trintignant and Riva's enormous credit that all of this comes across so powerfully, but of course the extraordinary mise-en-scene that their director provides is truly out of this world. Haneke has stated that he loves working in studios because he has absolute control over the way everything looks and feels. With cameraman Darius Khondji he deploys extended shots with an extremely mobile camera which follows actors (especially Trintignant) around, drawing us closely into the narrative. Apparently, in the 127 minute film there are only 236 cuts with a shot length of the average of 32 seconds - long by normal standards. The framing is very exact and the dedication to capturing exactly the nuances of eye movement, of body contact, the tone of voice is obviously deeply exacting. One doesn't want to take one's eyes off the screen for fear of missing something during this quietly understated display of cinematic pyrotechnics.
The film's ending has raised a good deal of debate and here is perhaps not the place to deal with it. Regarding the pigeon I was reminded of the French avant garde composer Olivier Messiaen and why he used birdsong in so much of his music. His answer was that his music is deeply devotional and that birds are the closest thing he knew to angels and to God. Notice Georges' reaction to seeing the bird in the apartment. He closes (not opens) the window and once trapped beneath his jacket, he sinks to the floor fondling the creature. We can be reasonably sure here that we are dealing with his imagination and his cherishing of his wife's soul. That said, Haneke is a director who likes to pose questions more than answer them and (as in all his films) there is an element of open-endedness to proceedings. Perhaps the ending is what we choose it to be. Whatever we decide, the apartment is left bare and the daughter is left alone - excluded beyond the last.
I can't recommend this film highly enough. Artificial Eye's presentation is superb. The visuals (aspect ratio 16:9, 1.85:1) are top drawer and the sound (5.1/2.0 Dolby Digital) extremely clear. The extras are also generous - the Philippe Rouyer introduction, the Trintignant interview and a substantial 'making of' documentary. For once we don't get the usual Haneke interview that accompanies most of these AE releases. As said, this film is deeply personal for him and perhaps he prefers others to do the talking. I have no hesitation in pronouncing this as one of the 2 or 3 great films made so far this millennium. In decades to come this film will be talked about in terms of awe. Even if the subject doesn't grab you, you'd be a fool to miss such staggering film-making.
The chattering reviewers in newspapers have waxed lyrical about this film and I must say that I agree. However, it is not easy going and one must be prepared for some serious film viewing. It is an interesting story of terminal love but for me the highlight was the cameo portrait of the bossy daughter.
This film has to have five stars, for the quality of the acting, the film-making and the whole conception. It is not always easy to watch - it isn't meant to be. And the whole action, such as it is, unfolds gradually. The camera is mostly static, there is no background music, and scenes are quite long and their significance not always obvious.
The film is about an octogenarian French couple, wonderfully well acted (well, lived) by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. She suffers first one stroke, then another. He looks after her, because she has made him promise not to put her in a home. The task gets more and more difficult, and their life becomes turned in completely on itself. Almost all the film takes place in their apartment.
The faces of the two stars are unforgettable, and the way Riva deteriorates is shocking but very realistic. It is a very moving film, and highly recommended, but anyone who has experience of this kind of ordeal may find it difficult.