Cormac McCarthy once said that he had a friend who was so old that he no longer buys green bananas. I read this in an interview and my reaction was twofold: on the one hand I laughed at what was a funny observation by McCarthy, but I also felt sombre about the fact that Cormac McCarthy, my favourite living novelist, will soon die and we’ll be without a man who has given so much wealth to the world. There’s nothing to be done about this; all things come to an end etc., but this sense of inevitability was a feeling which permeated Michael Haneke’s latest film, Amour (Love).
Haneke has made a name for himself by producing rather enigmatic and unsettling films. 2005’s Caché (Hidden) explored how paranoia can slowly destroy the lives of a middle-class family; his follow-up and first Palme d’Or winning film Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon) examined fear more thoroughly, demonstrating a small community’s adoption of totalitarianism in a time of insecurity. Amour deals with a very different kind of fear – the fear of facing what cannot be stopped.
Amour follows the lives of former music teachers, Georges and Anne, who live in Paris and are rudely awakened to the inevitability of death when Anne suffers the first of two strokes. Confined to a wheelchair, they each know what is coming, and Georges does his best to ease Anne’s situation, but only so much can be done. Becoming progressively dependent on Georges, Anne makes him promise not to put her in a hospital. Georges agrees and decides to care for Anne for as long as he can.
Haneke employs his familiar stately style: the mise-en-scene is composed of tight shots within their small Parisian apartment; the cinematography is angular and carefully constructed, both revealing and sparing; the atmosphere is tangible as the sense of anxiety takes root and slowly saturates the film; the camera’s gaze never feels as though it’s intruding, but it never feels like it welcomes you into the scene either. We are merely witnesses to Haneke’s testament to love and the harrowing character of this depiction.
The performances of the leading couple are magnificent. Emmanuelle Riva embodies the transformative role of Anne perfectly, beginning as a woman full of life and slowly becoming more and more dependent on her ever-loving husband. Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance is far more understated, but just as powerful, he adds a stoicism and dignity to Georges’ struggle with his wife’s both physical and mental decline.
Haneke does not shy away from Anne’s depreciating condition. There are long extended scenes in which we see her struggle with the most mundane of tasks. It makes for incredibly disconcerting viewing; the visceral nature of these scenes was at times unbearable and brought to life the agony of death like no other film I’ve ever seen. However, Haneke handles this with a delicacy and a weight which feels not only appropriate, but haunting as well.
There is a scene where Georges sits listening to a recording of Schubert given as a gift by one of Anne’s former students. He sits and remembers Anne playing the piano and then stops the recording. Lost in reverie he savours this moment of memory, as brief as it is. It is an odd scene – considering how long others are this one in relatively brief – but then again, we can only reminisce for so long before we have to face reality.
I appreciate at the relatively young age of twenty that above all I feel sympathy rather than empathy when watching this film. I am reminded of when my Grandmother died and I left the cinema thinking far more thoroughly about my own death. Why is the film titled Love? Because it is love. It is beautiful, it is horrifying and, above all, it is honest. To know something is inevitable and to accept it are two very different things. Love can soften the blow.