About halfway through Michael Haneke’s Amour, septuagenarian Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) describes the deteriorating health of his ailing wife, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), in terms that convey a bone-chilling, because universal, relevance: “Things will go downhill, then it’ll all be over.” Welcome to your future, everyone. What’s most surprising of all, then, is that, despite its death-haunted demeanor and foregone conclusion (revealed in the very first scene), this is easily Haneke’s most humane film. Grounded by heartbreakingly poignant performances from two of French cinema’s most iconic actors, Amour contains none of the moralistic finger-wagging and gratuitous sadism that so many critics have found off-putting in the director’s work. (Though I must admit that I am, by and large, an admirer of his films.) Confined almost entirely to Georges and Anne’s apartment, Amour attends the escalating consequences when Anne suffers a stroke that paralyzes half her body. Haneke handles the material with his usual clinical detachment and precision, the camera (like Georges) observing dispassionately, but never exploitatively, while nurses bath Anne and change her diapers. The only tonal misstep, and it’s a rather slight one at that, occurs with two scenes involving a pigeon that invades their apartment (shades of Reality’s cricket!). These scenes objectify the film’s themes of entrapment and release a trifle too handily.
Amour begins with a literal bang as authorities bust open the front door of a Parisian flat that’s been sealed shut with duct tape. Inside, they discover Anne’s body arranged in state on the bed, flowers strewn all about her, while nearby a curtain flaps at an open window. Cut to a luxury theater where an audience (much like the one that viewed it at Cannes) awaits the start of the show. As classical piano music begins to play, the camera holds on the audience. Spectatorship, being forced to watch from a remove while uncontrollable events transpire, is one of Amour’s subterranean themes, finding its reflection in a story Georges tells Anne at a decisive moment in the film: As a child he spent time at a summer camp that he detested and, as a result, he got sick with diphtheria. When his mother came to visit him in the hospital, she was quarantined at a safe distance behind the plate glass. Haneke seems to suggest that, ultimately, there’s precious little we can do to ease our loved ones’ suffering short of freeing them from their pain altogether.
Far better than the heavy-handed animal symbolism is a pair of dream sequences that convey a certain affective charge without getting too insistent about things. The terrifically ambivalent ending, too, gives viewers something to chew on, without necessarily scratching their heads in bafflement, as many did at the end of Caché. Although the show clearly belongs to Trintignant and Riva, Isabelle Huppert (a frequent Haneke collaborator) lends able support as Eva, the couple’s daughter, and Certified Copy’s William Shimell has, in effect, a cameo as her husband. Early in the film, before the onset of Anne’s illness, Georges regales her with another emblematic story, this one about seeing a movie as a small boy that had a profound emotional impact on him. That impact, however, only really hit home later, when he was telling the plotline to someone who hadn’t seen it. Emotion, Georges implies, whether love or pain, is stronger upon recollection, the effect not unlike turning the pages of a long-neglected photo album, evidence of a long life glimpsed near its end.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 16—27. For more information click here.