You can’t easily shake a Michael Haneke film. I think it has to do with the stillness. He locks down a shot and forces you to study every inch of the frame. I recall the first time I watched Caché, and how the videotapes sent to the couple in that film are simple, long, mysterious shots, just the outside of their apartment. As an audience member, I was forced to analyze every grain of those images on the screen. I became the couple in the film, looking for any clue I could find. Haneke understands better than any filmmaker that when we walk into that darkened theater, we are becoming voyeurs watching the lives of the individuals on screen. What Haneke is often able to achieve that few filmmakers can is that he actually makes you that character. He puts you directly in their shoes. He is yet again able to pull off this feat with his new film (which actually did win the Palme D’Or at Cannes,) Amour.
Amour tells a far simpler story than most of his recent films, but with that simplicity comes what is possibly his most emotional and gut-wrenching film. Amour tells the story of an elderly couple: Georges and Anne, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. One day Anne has a stroke. From there, her health only gets worse and worse and Georges is forced to care for her. As we are shown in early scenes, this is a couple who is very much in love. However many years of marriage it’s been, Georges is still sure to tell Anne how beautiful she looks. There is no question to the love here. But how will this stroke test this bond?
Where the Haneke touch comes in is how realistic Anne’s deterioration is treated. We are forced to witness it slowly, along with Georges. It’s that stillness. That willingness to hold on a long shot of Georges trying in vain to feed Anne. There are no corners cut. We are put right into Georges’ shoes. As he is driven crazy by her screams of pain, so are we. Haneke forces us to deal with the pain, to deal with the idea of growing old, and how someone you care for can suddenly become a different person. A burden, even. Anne realizes she is a burden, but out of love or maybe just obligation, Georges will never let on. No film in my memory expresses the pain of getting old so honestly. Of watching those you love wither away and seeing the people around you die. It’s a powerful subject made more powerful by the viewer realizing this is something we all have to go through one day. While watching I couldn’t help think of relatives who have passed. People I loved. Did they suffer like this?
I’m sure you don’t doubt the power of this film. But you may be asking why you would want to subject yourself to something so gut-wrenching. Beyond the fact of having stepped back and realizing that you are in the presence of a master filmmaker, the other reasons to see it are the performances. They are magnificent. Trintgnant plays Georges as a man unsure. He knows his wife wants to die, but the idea of a world without her is unimaginable to him, even in her current state. In nearly every scene his face shows confusion, conflict, and most of all, fear. The fear of what will inevitably become of his love. But it’s Riva as Anne who steals the show. After her stroke, Anne’s health issues are mostly physical. Half her body is paralyzed. Riva must constantly have her hand balled up. Constantly not move her left leg. It’s as much a physical performance as an emotional one. Late in the film when speech becomes difficult it’s her eyes that have to convey defiance and pain. It’s remarkable. It’s easily the most challenging role for any actress this year and I hope come Oscar time she is well rewarded.
Haneke’s work is often mesmerizing and as painful as this film can be its no exception. The film comes out December 19th just in time for Oscar season. In fact it’s Austria’s official selection. The biggest compliment I can give the film is that long after the credits roll Georges and Anne are two characters who you won’t be able to shake. Their love is something you won’t soon forget.