Michael Haneke’s story of an elderly couple coping with infirmity is both tragic and powerfully life-affirming.
In the world of European arthouse cinema - not traditionally known for its cheeriness - Michael Haneke cuts a particularly solemn and disquieting figure. Austrian film-making’s answer to Samuel Beckett, he is the morose, black-clad, raven-faced iconoclast, rejecting cinema’s consolatory caress and unearthing the sordid, sado-masochistic impulses that lurk beneath polite society’s prim and proper visage. He throws the rules of cinematic narrative construction and common decency out the window, but always (the hyper self-aware Funny Games excluded) with a shudder rather than a smirk or a sneer.
But while each of his 10 films is a challenging and daring project, it has inevitably reached the point where his acerbic expostulations become a kind of shtick – one that you eventually tire of being beaten over the head with.
Amour, his Cannes Palme D’Or winner and multi-Oscar-nommed drama, is something rather different. An unflinching glance at the indignities of aging, bereavement and despair, it is as thorough-going as any of Haneke’s previous work, but markedly less cynical. There’s something, I dare say, heartwarming about it – unique in its evident care for its characters and an inexorable humanity that survives its manifest gloom.
This is clearly a far more personal film for Haneke. It is the story of retired Parisian music teacher Ann (Emmanuelle Riva) and her decline after a stroke, and the stoic efforts of her doddery husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) to take care of her, made all the more trying as she completely loses the will to live. The story springs from the writer/director’s own experience: the aunt who raised him took her own life at the age of 92 after suffering from debilitating rheumatism.
The film’s central theme is helplessness, evoked through the mental and physical inertia Ann falls victim to, and Georges’ inability to spare her from her condition’s inevitable indignities. In a key scene, Georges looks on horrified as a surly nurse – hired to lighten his load – brusquely washes Ann, while she, unable to fully voice her discomfort, says ‘mal’ (‘hurt’, en Francais) over and over like a haunting, metronomic foghorn. The nurse assures him she doesn’t know what she’s saying, and could have just as easily been shouting ‘cake’, but this fails to comfort Georges or ease his feeling that he has somehow let his wife down.
The central protagonists– played with wizened grace by Riva and Trintignant – bear the same names as the couple from Haneke’s 2005 thriller, Caché (Hidden). However, where in that previous, sinewy whodunit, the Laurents were established as the epitome of middle-class respectability, only for this to be undercut by revelations of Georges’ malevolent past, there are no skeletons lurking in the closets of this Parisian apartment, where, bar one opening scene, the entirety of Amour claustrophobically unfurls. The sordid twist, the blight on an otherwise amiable character, is absent, and Haneke knowingly plays with this expectation. At one point, a pigeon flies into the apartment and Georges chases it around the hallway before successfully trapping it under a blanket. With Ann’s health deteriorating, he is clearly reaching the end of his tether and the Haneke-literate in the audience would naturally assume he was about to throttle the animal, perhaps even molest it. Instead, he cradles it gently before setting it free.
The drama of Amour is understated and horrifying in its universality: we all have to endure suffering and death, and, as Haneke well knows, many of us will have to look on helplessly as the person we love deteriorates. But he nevertheless sternly rejects any opportunity for catharsis.
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The couple’s daughter (Isabelle Huppert) comes to visit, but failing to quell her self-absorption – talking endlessly about investments and her fraught relations with her womanising English husband – she vexes rather than comforts her ailing mother. When a former student of Ann sends her a postcard referring to her condition as ‘sad and beautiful’, she scoffs.
As such, Haneke refuses us even a moment of sentimental succour, and he is as brutal with his actors as he is with the audience. In a recent interview, he somewhat callously remarked that Riva and Trintignant, ‘both [know] that this situation will concern them in their own lives in the very near future’.
However, there is an inimitable humaneness to Amour that saves it from becoming a mournful dirge. Throughout the film, as Georges and Ann reminisce about their lives together and the people who have come and gone, they evoke the sense of joy that pervades all of life’s vicissitudes. One moment, in particular, stayed with me: while flicking through old photos, and in the context of distress and decline, Ann can still say ‘C’est beau – la vie.’
Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.