AMOUR (dir. Michael Haneke, 2012)
Due to the commercial demands of filmmaking movies have traditionally tended to focus on stories about young people, and relationships, when they are depicted, are conventionally shown from their inception—think of the classic screwball set-up, “meeting cute,” for example, and how many films end with the central couple in a clinch, if not standing at the altar, itself. There are films which analyze the malaise of middle-age and the politics of divorce but relatively few which cast an unflinching eye on what might be called the “back-end” of a married relationship: the inevitable approach of old age and death. Among this limited pool Leo McCarey’s three-hanky classic MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937), Yasujiro Ozu’s studied and rapturous TOKYO STORY (1953) (loosely inspired by the former), and Mark Rydell’s ON GOLDEN POND (1981) immediately jump to mind, as well as a touching, though brief, segment towards the end of Terence Davies’ recent THE DEEP BLUE SEA (2011).
With the exception of saccharine—though enjoyable—fantasies like COCOON, these movies depicting the twilight years of marriage are rare, and few, indeed, are the filmmakers willing to cast a meaningful, unsentimental eye on the subject.
Enter Austrian-born Michael Haneke—this generation’s Francisco Goya—a director whose probings into the dark recesses of human behavior (FUNNY GAMES, THE PIANO TEACHER) and the machinations of fate (CACHÉ, THE WHITE RIBBON) are capable of singeing indelible, haunting images on the backsides of moviegoers’ eyeballs.
His Amour begins with authorities discovering an elderly woman dead in her Paris apartment and questions being asked about her death. Months earlier the woman, Anne Laurent (Emmanuelle Riva), and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), both retired piano teachers in their eighties, are shown attending a concert one evening of a former pupil. All seems normal until the next morning when, in the midst of breakfast, Anne suddenly begins staring blankly off into space. At first imagining that Anne is playing some sort of a game with him Georges eventually becomes worried and prepares to call for help when, suddenly, he finds his wife up and about again, although not recognizant of the events of a few minutes before. She claims to be fine at first before admitting to the loss of memory and ultimately proving to be highly unsteady, almost incapable of pouring herself a cup of tea.
Anne has suffered a stroke and surgery performed on a blocked artery eventually results in paralysis to her right side and her being confined to a wheelchair. Upon arriving home Anne, who has a life-long fear of doctors, makes Georges promise to never take her back to the hospital again. This promise becomes the crux of the remainder of the film as Georges aims to stay true to his word, becoming, essentially, the sole companion of his beloved wife during their difficult final months together.
Viewers who are unused to this subject matter and to Haneke’s searing filmmaking-style may find the material dark, at times, and a little unsettling. One of the director’s trademark themes, paranoia, even plays a role, after the couple find that someone has attempted to break into their flat and Georges’ fears begin to close in on him in a particularly eerie and unexpected sequence. Haneke, as usual, makes no attempt to varnish the world around him, his vision at times cold and bleak.
But there are life and beauty to be found here, as well. “Amour” is French for “love,” after all, and, though a film depicting a husband standing by his wife while she fades away can make for difficult viewing, it is important to keep that fact in mind. The final scenes of this film, when Georges attempts to keep his word to Anne, are particularly heartbreaking.
Emmanuelle Riva (HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR; LÉON MORIN, PRIEST; and THREE COLORS: BLUE) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (A MAN AND A WOMAN, Z, MY NIGHT AT MAUD’S, THE CONFORMIST, CONFIDENTIALLY YOURS, THREE COLORS: RED) are both legends of the French screen and their faces, associated particularly with the French New Wave and years afterwards, here lend an extra poignancy to Haneke’s twilight tale. Trintignant, as the stalwart-yet-vulnerable Georges, reveals multiple layers of emotion, even during a long and unexpectedly moving sequence towards the end of the film when he attempts to capture a pigeon which has flown into the apartment. Riva, in a part which must have been physically very difficult for her to play, is magnificent. Not to be overlooked, the estimable Isabelle Huppert (a frequent presence in the films of Haneke) is excellent as Georges and Anne’s loving but busy and sometimes distant daughter.
Haneke, who has made his name in film with paranoid delusions, ominous gloom, and sudden, unexpected bursts of violence, here in this memento mori tells an unexpectedly restrained and touching story of an elderly man and woman’s deep love for one another, close to the end.