Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cinematically Inclined: on Michael Haneke’s “Amour”

“Dance me to the end of love” – Madeleine Peyroux

What happens when happily ever after ends? Michael Haneke, the distinguished Austrian filmmaker whose credits include realist horror stories such as Funny Games, Caché and the 2009 Cannes Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon, makes a radical departure from his usual oeuvre to answer the question.

Right off the bat, cineastes note that this film’s subject matter is not something expected of the director. His films appear at first blush to have an accessible theme, but are often about something else altogether. His Caché started off with a couple attempting to find out who’s been sending them videotapes of themselves carrying on in their daily lives, but is a meditation on the legacy of the Franco-Algerian War. La Pianiste appears to be about a forbidden sexual affair, but actually explores misanthropy and sexual alienation. And The White Ribbon might seem like a riff on Children of the Corn, but things take a more darkly realistic turn when you realize this was in the years just before WWI and who the young citizens of that small German grew up to be in the 1930s … and into this mix comes Amour.

Set in contemporary Paris, we meet an elegant retired couple in their 80s who were once great piano teachers. They attend recitals, they debate interpretations and they mentor dazzling pianists who still look to them for their opinions on the latest attempt at perfecting Handel’s Sarabande. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) now live in an elegant Parisian apartment, enjoying their retirement. One day, Anne has a stroke at breakfast, but doesn’t know it. A series of increasingly debilitating strokes weaken her and rob her of her motor coordination, until she is all but confined to her bed and barely able to receive the occasional visitor. Their estranged daughter (Isabelle Huppert) drops by every once in awhile to express her annoyance at their care of treatment plan, and is exasperated by Georges’s measures to prevent her from even seeing her mother in such a state. Georges, suspicious of nursing homes, refuses to let Anne be looked after outside the apartment: soon, we notice that we haven’t left the apartment, either.

If this story sounds familiar, it is thematically similar to Sarah Polley’s acclaimed 2007 film Away From Her, which explores a husband watching helplessly as his wife drifts away into the abyss of Alzheimer’s. Unlike Polley’s film, however, Haneke’s story doesn’t take place in a nursing home, and instead explores the ever-increasing, possibly inescapable indignities that arrive in old age. Anne falls out of bed in an attempt to be mobile. An unfeeling home-care nurse treats her roughly and, when fired by Georges, gives him a terse “go fuck yourself, you dirty old man”. Eventually, pained by her inability to express herself through music any longer, Anne orders Georges to stop playing recordings of their favourite piano pieces. All that is left is the couple, the silence, and the long torturous wait for The End. And in the end, is that all there is? Is this what happens at the end of love? Haneke posits that the title is a bitter test at the end of a long and happy marriage, as if the universe tauntingly asks, “do you love your spouse this much?”

Haneke, with the Palme d'Or, Cannes 2012
I was reminded recently of the beloved American sitcom The Golden Girls, a long-running smash about four senior women living in a shared Miami home, enjoying life to the hilt. The gut-busting laughter in that show was always informed by the ever-present specter of death looming about, and how the women respond to changing times and attitudes with perspective and good humour. The show regularly made fun of Alzheimer’s and did not shy away from jokes about adult diapers. Its insight was informed by the idea of a blended biological and adopted family that kept the demons at bay, even in the face of impending mortality. Georges and Anne, however, have all but locked themselves into their well-appointed home that serves as a de facto sarcophagus. Haneke’s vision is grim and sobering.

This is not, however, a damnation of Amour. On the contrary, it is one of the most penetrating and emotionally devastating films in recent years. Trintignant, the handsome 1960s leading man of A Man and a Woman and the great Kieslowski’s Trois Couleurs: Rouge, came out of retirement to play Georges. His quiet dignity must be enough for two, as he hides his suffering in plain sight of his wife while she is betrayed by the confines of her now-feeble body. Riva, the ravishing star of Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour, bottles the last of Anne’s great beauty and cages it within the prison of her mind, looking out onto Georges from within. It’s as if she were suffering death by a thousand cuts, all of them bleeding internally and, most poisonously, emotionally. Providing able support is another French acting national treasure, Huppert, packing her brief appearances here memorably with years of untold frustration. She’s long past the point in life where she knows better than her parents, but helplessly finding their situation increasingly untenable. That Haneke’s story was strong enough to draw two top-drawer veterans out of hibernation and one of the country’s preeminent stars proves that it is a worthy project of the highest order. As he gives the story the gravity it deserves, these three inhabit their performances with nuance and skill that could only have been gained through experience, and cannot be taught in acting class.

While I have painted a story about mortality and decay, I must emphasize that this is a film that fully embodies its title. Haneke’s film says that love reaches beyond platitudes, song and passion, well into the unknown and emphasizes “for worse”, whatever that might be. It is at times unbearably painful. Those who only fathom true cinematic romance in vampire movies and that “notebook” will not be prepared for what lies beyond fantasy and the promise of eternal youth, and posits that only the eternal aspect of love survives, long after the point of no return.

Amour won the coveted Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It has been a sensation at film festivals the world over and is the Austrian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards (which I predict it will likely win, or be at least nominated). I would argue that all three performers – Trintignant, Riva and Huppert – also deserve nominations for their challenging work. Amour has been opening slowly throughout Europe, and is set for limited release in North America on December 19, 2012. It will be one of the most haunting films on pure, unadulterated love you will ever see.