Winner of the 2012 Palme d’Or at Cannes and with plenty more awards to come in the coming months, Austrian Director Michael Haneke’s film Amour is a story about enduring love. Georges (Jean-Loius Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers, living alone in their eighties in their spacious Parisian apartment. Cultured and very much in love, their relationship comes under the ultimate test when Anne suffers a stroke. Georges does his best to care for Anne who begins spiralling further and further into ill health. Against the advice of nurses and the couple’s daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), Georges refuses to hospitalise his ailing wife and chooses to carry the burden of her care on his aging hips.
Although Amour lacks the malevolence and hard edged cruelty of some of the Director’s best known work, it is still a film which has the ability to shock. Uncharacteristically for Haneke it is also an extremely beautiful tale but also happens to be the most depressing film I’ve ever seen. I have rarely left a cinema feeling so low or despondent and it wasn’t until I was on my way home that the film’s greatness managed to shine through the dismal but ultimately beautiful plot.
Haneke frames his film in an entrancing way. Each shot feels managed and exact and the eye is able to wonder across the well weathered faces of the cast and the apartment in which the entire film is set. The Director rarely or if ever utilizes a moving camera and this helps to provide a stillness to the piece. Shots linger far longer than you’d expect which gives the impression of being in the room with the characters rather than merely peering through a window for a few seconds. An example of this lingering comes when a former student of Georges who is now a famous concert pianist comes to visit. Georges sits the man down in his living room and leaves to make some tea. The camera stays fixed on the newcomer as he sits alone and silent in the room, occasionally looking at a painting on the wall or record on the shelf. Throughout this time you can here Georges making the tea off camera. The scene and extremely naturalistic acting makes it feel as you are the third person in the setting.
The slow pace, stillness and lack of orchestral score helped to put at least three of the people in the tiny cinema I was in, asleep early on. They were all woken with a bang at one of two moments during which half the audience gasped or shouted out loud. The first of these involved just Georges and had a slightly but subsequently explained surrealism to it. The second involved both central characters and was deeply shocking. The way in which the film was played on the whole gave these very brief sharp stabs of excitement all the more presence and shock value. In general though the film is like its central characters; it is slow, graceful and endearing. There is a third shock towards the end but this didn’t get the same reaction from the audience as the first two, despite being perhaps the most shocking of the three. This sequence felt more of a relief really and although horrible to see also helped to give closure.
One of the reasons why I found the film so depressing is because of my fondness for the characters and their relationship. At times it felt like watching your own grandmother slowly die before your eyes. Indeed anyone who has lost an elderly relative will see the similarities in Emmanuelle Riva’s performance and the various stages of deterioration at the end of someone’s life. It was heartbreaking to watch not only Anne’s struggles with health but also Georges’ undying love for his wife. Even thinking back to it now is making me feel both melancholic and ambivalent. On the one hand I am extremely sad to be recalling the tragedy that is the film’s plot but at the same time the couple’s love was so strong and unwavering that it is uplifting.
Without two of the strongest performances I’ve seen all year I doubt the film would have had quite the same effect on me as it undoubtedly has. Both actors will surely be highly decorated in the near future, though probably not by the likes of the commercial Oscars or Globes but have both already been nominated for European Academy Awards. Their portrayal of the couple is spellbinding with each having around half the film to really shine. It feels as though the first half belongs to Jean-Loius Trintignant who is mesmerising throughout but particularly strong early on. His initial reaction to his wife’s illness and level headed handling is brilliant and his calm, loving and frail exterior suffers constant setbacks from which he simply rises, even stronger each time. Emmanuelle Riva’s decent towards death is one of the most horrifying and upsetting things I’ve ever witnessed at the cinema. She plays her part with such realism that I found it hard to disconnect from the film and remember it was only a film. Her cheekiness and passion for life early on only makes what comes later even harder to watch. When struggling to talk she is incredible and something that I actually liked about both characters is that they never wanted any pity. The acting, setting and general realism all give the air of a documentary at times which brings the audience closer to the couple. Their chemistry also drives the film towards the highs that it reaches.
The ending is left slightly ambiguous which was a good decision. Personally I’d like to think that we are in a similar situation to the ‘flooded hallway scene’ but it is left open to the viewer’s imagination. It may well be that Georges getting up from the bed can be read into too. Overall Amour is up there with the best films I’ve seen this year and is not to be missed if you are a fan of loving, well-worked, beautiful cinema or indeed a fan of the Director then I highly recommend it. A warning though; Although close to a masterpiece it has the ability to bring about a melancholic state which if you’re anything like me will linger like one of Haneke’s beautifully executed scenes.