The final scene in Michael Haneke’s disturbing 2005 film Caché, which featured a middle class French couple who bizarrely receive videotapes of themselves through the post, is a perplexing conversation between two characters that takes place on the steps of a school. It is frustrating in that we are not party to the dialogue, even though Haneke wrote some for the scene and he maintains that the actors said it. Haneke has since confirmed that the unheard dialogue is important to the story but he has agreed with the actors never to reveal it or to publish a screenplay. The film therefore ends without an audience-satisfying reveal, leaving us guessing as to the true identity of the person that has been both recording and posting the tapes.
I mention this because it looks, at first glance, fairly innocuous. The sudden ending of the film after this scene comes as a surprise (if one considers cinematic conventions as opposed to the work of Michael Haneke), and caused many viewers to rewind, with most presumably wondering what had been missed. Haneke seems to revel in messing with the audience’s mind, showing clearly that there are always different approaches to take when watching a given scene, and each of these will affect the viewer’s interpretation considerably.
There’s a similarly innocuous-looking moment near the beginning of Amour, the film which earned Haneke his second Palme D’Or, and interestingly it feels essential to re-watch it after you have seen the rest of the picture as well: The fixed camera is wittily facing an entire theatre audience from the unseen stage as patrons take their seats for a piano concerto. Two of the attendees are Parisians Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an elderly pair of retired music teachers, but it is difficult to work out at this stage who we should be looking out for in the sea of faces. (The movie opens with a fire crew breaking into Anne and Georges’ apartment, and they discover Anne’s dead body, with flowers scattered around her head; however we are not familiar enough with the character to spot her easily when the story winds back in time to the concert.)
The concert scene takes on an added poignancy when watched again after seeing the entire film. Familiarity means it is easy to pick out Anne and Georges second time round, and therefore the eyes ignore all those peripheral extras that confused the scene initially. As the couple applaud the entrance of a former pupil and concert pianist named Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud) it’s noticeable that Anne’s right hand is jittery as she claps. Georges appears to spot it, glancing down on two occasions, looking slightly concerned. There’s no way you’d see this first time round, and Haneke skillfully reveals once again that context is everything.
After the concert, Georges and Anne arrive home to find their lock has been broken, although no possessions have apparently been stolen from their apartment. (This is interesting; it links well to the firemen breaking and entering at the start of the film, but also makes us wonder who or what has broken in, and why. Is it Death?) The following day Anne suffers a stroke, which leaves her blank at first, but it subsequently paralyses the right-hand side of her body. The rest of Haneke’s film details the care provided by Georges as Anne’s condition gradually deteriorates and she becomes reliant on her husband. Wheelchair-bound at first, eventually Anne becomes incontinent and then suffers a second stroke, more serious than the first, which leaves her bed-bound and incapable of coherent speech.
Amour is a film that really gets to grips with its weighty subject matter: life, love and death. Given that we see the body in the first scene, there’s no surprise as Anne’s condition worsens, and Haneke chronicles this deterioration poetically, yet he also features heavily the struggles that the couple now face with regard to previously mundane tasks such as eating, dressing and bathing. There are several moments of tenderness as the two slowly move around their high-ceilinged flat, and their conversations are both realistic and poignant. It is heartbreaking when Anne flicks through an old photo album and states ‘c’est beau – la vie…’, and equally it is incredibly sad when a frustrated Georges momentarily lets his anger take over and strikes his defenceless wife when she decides that she wants to die and will not take on any more liquids. Otherwise Georges is stoic, uncomplaining in his duties, having sworn a promise to Anne that he would not take her back to the hospital or put her in a home.
Trintingant – an actor who had not appeared on screen for 16 years – is superb as the dutiful, caring husband, growing frustrated with the apparently selfish behavior of his daughter Eva (Isabelle Hupert offering excellent support), who understandably wants her mother to receive professional care. Riva is perfect as Anne, believably revealing frustration at her lack of mobility and, eventually, indicating that she wants to die. I’ve never seen a more accurate representation of progressive dementia in a film, and her collection of multiple awards in 2012 and 2013 is completely deserved.
The most important ‘piece’ of Haneke’s film, after the two central performances, is the location. Nearly all of the film – aside from the theatre scene mentioned above and a brief moment on a bus – is set inside Georges and Anne’s apartment (Georges is seen in the corridor outside, but it is a dream sequence), and it becomes a character in its own right. By the end we are familiar with the layout and the decor, even down to the pictures that hang on the wall (the director focuses on these in one mournful sequence). The choice of angles ensures that certain aspects of the rooms are not revealed at first; there are several scenes set in the couple’s drawing room, for example, before a grand piano is shown to be standing by the window.
As a result of Anne’s lack of mobility, the couple essentially barricade themselves in; it is often said that victims of severe strokes can feel like they are imprisoned within their own bodies, and Haneke is perhaps alluding to this idea in the way he uses the apartment. They receive few visitors, and Georges stubbornly fights battles of will with his daughter and fires a nurse who handles his wife roughly; he is undefeatable in his own environment. As they become more entrenched in the apartment they gradually lose their love for other people and things in their life that they once cherished: their star pupil, their daughter, music…it all becomes immaterial as the illness forces them to focus on their remaining time together. However as Anne’s condition worsens there is even a huge strain placed upon the love that exists between the two of them; their relationship evolves all the way until the very end.
That end, when it comes, is both moving and beautiful. The final shots of the apartment, emptied of the life of its inhabitants and filmed from angles Haneke has avoided up until that point, is as breathtakingly sad as anything the oft-detached Austrian has made to date. It’s a fitting, sad end to a masterful study of life and death and of a couple’s love for each other. Amour is touching, weighty, graceful, unsentimental, intelligent and – thanks largely to the performances of Trintignant and Riva – utterly absorbing.
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Written by: Michael Haneke
Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Hupert
Running Time: 125 minutes