I gravitated, at this year’s London Film Festival, towards several films focusing upon elderly characters dealing with illness and decline. Due to various family circumstances this year, such films have a special resonance for me just now, more than works focusing upon my “own” generation tend to have. In its intelligence, its intensity, its subtlety and its deep compassion, Michael Haneke’s Amour simply blows the other films I saw out of the water, exposing the likes of Quartet and Song for Marion as the shallow exercises in uplift that they are. Amour had such a profound impact on me that I’ve delayed writing about it; I felt overwhelmed for quite a while after the screening, and I’m not sure that I’ve recovered from it yet, having found myself reduced to tears at the oddest moments in the past few weeks, when a scene, line or image from the movie resurfaced in my mind. I’m not sure, either, that there’s really any way to do this film justice, other than to simply say: “Don’t miss it.” Still, the following remarks represent an attempt to get beyond that clichéd - though entirely heartfelt - exhortation and to try to express a little more about what makes this film so rich and haunting, and so essential.
It could have been called A Man and a Woman - had not Claude Lelouch already used that title for his iconic 1960s romance. Haneke’s stark style is about as far as can be imagined from Lelouch’s chic ‘n’ glossy visual blitz. But the title fits because Amour, too, is an intimate portrait of a couple - specific in detail yet timeless in feeling - and one that stars one of A Man and a Woman’s actors, to boot. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva (53 years on from her debut in an another film with amour on its mind) play Haneke’s latest “Georges and Anne” incarnation, here a middle-class, long-married pair of former music teachers dealing with Anne’s gradual decline following a series of strokes. Returning home in a wheelchair after her initial hospital stay, Anne gently requests that Georges doesn’t allow her to return to a care facility and instead looks after her at home. The film follows his attempts to fulfil that promise, with the help of kindly neighbours and not-always-kindly nurses. “We’ve always coped, your mother and I,” Georges reminds the couple’s daughter Eva (superb Isabelle Huppert), who arrives at the flat periodically, offering tears, concern and accusation but not much in the way of practical help. But Anne’s heart-rending deterioration - from wheelchair-bound to bed-ridden, from eloquence to incoherence - proves, for Georges, an ultimate test of love.
Amour is, by some margin, Haneke’s most interior movie to date, his most distilled, his most intimate, and - as critics have not been slow to point out - his most tender. Apart from a few early scenes - brief but crucial in establishing a sense of the day-to-day normality of the couple’s life that Anne’s illness will disrupt - the entire film plays out within the walls of Anne and Georges’s Paris apartment. However, despite Haneke’s background in the theatre, and the attention to spatial dynamics that it evidently fostered, there’s nothing remotely stagy about the director’s approach here. Rather, Amour establishes - and sustains - an intensity that is entirely cinematic. Less self-conscious about spectatorship than much of Haneke’s output - though at one moment Georges, describing Anne’s worsening condition, notes, poignantly, that “none of this should be shown” - Haneke’s approach is at once discreet and unflinching. His mastery of technique and peerless rhythmic sense keep the viewer in a state of absolute alertness throughout. And if his intention continues to be to combat the "mediatisation" of experience by encouraging us to perceive reality "better" then there’s no surer evidence of his success than the attentive, discerning and - yes - loving gaze that Amour inspires.
Our supreme anatomist of fraught interaction in the contemporary city thus becomes a master of huis clos, then. But the movement feels less like a retreat than a confrontation. For Amour must rank as one of the most fearless examinations of mortality the screen has ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever before seen a film that conveys with more rasping poignancy the experience of watching a loved one languish, and of being their care-taker. Or, of course, of being the person being taken care of. What we witness is the progressive deterioration of a woman into a wraith, deprived of speech and control over her body.
As Amour maps that trajectory with scrupulous sensitivity, scene after scene rings with resonant, telling detail, as well as a cumulative sense of the protagonists’ history together. For what the movie also offers is a rarity in itself: an un-idealised portrait of a loving marriage. As Michał Oleszczyk points out in a characteristically astute comparison: “In contrast to such works of comfy denial as Mike Leigh’s Another Year, [Haneke’s] aging couple… is present[ed] as both affectionate toward each other and as struggling to preserve the level of affection that we observe. Despite the near-constant civility of their on-screen exchanges, there are hints at past wounds that never get developed, but retain their prickling force nevertheless.” Amour’s scenes-from-a-marriage therefore feel so much more honest than Another Year’s, giving the viewer more space for interpretation, and avoiding the broad brush strokes to which Leigh’s movie so damagingly succumbed. Wearing the weight of their history of screen performances very lightly, Trintignant and Riva perform their duet with consummate skill and absolute emotional bravery. You believe in them completely as a couple, and if there have been finer performances than theirs on screen this year then I’ve yet to see them.
Amour presents a paradox, ending up both translucent and ineffably mysterious. Some moments - best left un-specified here - make you wince in pain. Others - more rare, admittedly - surprise you into laughter. “His British humour is only bearable in small doses,” Anne notes of Eva’s partner, played by William Shimmell, here establishing himself, after Certified Copy, as every auteur’s go-to English guy. (And I think, even if I didn’t already admire Haneke as much as I do, I’d be his fan forever just for writing that single line.) Throughout Haneke keeps faith with the texture of everyday life - albeit with some jarring excursions into Geoges’s mind at moments. And he and DP Darius Khondji make the apartment itself a felt presence too; we’re made aware, from the very first frame, of its walls and furnishings, its passages and doorways, and, most pointedly and poignantly, of the characters' presence or absence within that space.
The tone of many of the reviews of Amour has been “Ah ha! So Haneke has a heart after all!” (Catherine Wheatley, one of the director’s most insightful critics, praises him here for “piling on none of the scorn that he has heaped on previous protagonists of his films.”) Haneke's reputation as some audience-punishing sadist has never made for a perfect fit, in my view, but it’s certainly true that Amour constitutes the most significant rebuttal to that accusation. It’s also true that the film’s final scenes are endowed with a quiet, unstressed sense of transcendence and grace that is new for the director, and that leaves the viewer equal parts humbled and floored.
For all the praise that the film is getting, the very subject matter of Amour will be enough to put some viewers off and to doubtless get the movie dismissed as a downer in certain quarters. Haneke isn’t, of course, a director to sweeten the pill; there is, indeed, no “comfy denial” or, worse, any “ain’t-it-funny-when-old-people-talk-about-sex” banter (a current pet peeve for yours truly) that lesser filmmakers might feel obliged to include as a pacifier. But the steadiness of Haneke's gaze, the radiant intelligence of his insights and the sheer humanity of his vision, mean that Amour generates its own kind of joy. A film that goes so very deep is not only a rarity in our current culture; it’s a gift. And so: Don’t miss it.