Amour is the latest film from Michael Haneke. It is a frank and hugely affecting study of how strokes destroy people. If, somehow, you managed to miss all mention of it at the start of the year then clearly you weren’t paying attention to the Oscars. It won the Best Foreign Language and also received nominations for Best Actress for Emmanuelle Riva, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director. Or to put it another way, how was the rock? Cosy under there, is it?
Haneke only has a few films to his name but, of the ones I have seen, they are powerful pieces. His tendency of favouring a realist presentation of matters is typically undermined by aspects, sometimes just brief moments, of external influences. If you’ve seen either version of Funny Games (and they are shot-for-shot clones of each other) you will recognise the very real brutality and terror throughout is greatly amplified by the moment of deus ex machina at the end. Haneke, in 30 seconds of film, makes you complicit. That glorious detachment that makes horror, slasher, suspense and other genres based on human suffering palatable is whipped away. The White Ribbon doesn’t even allow you the comfort of understanding and is instead pervaded by malice, omnipresent and anonymous (Joon-ho Bong‘s Memories of Murder touches on similar themes, incidentally).
At first these musings on violence may seem hard to reconcile with a Amour, which documents the power of love in the face of mortality. Georges and Anne love each other, have spent their lives together, are interdependent, one and the same. Considering people breaking in with golf clubs and no empathy, or violent deeds with no perpetrator, seems to have no place here. Haneke’s unflinching document concerns how strokes debilitate the strongest of wills, and smother them with uniform aspects of suffering. Anne has a fearsome wit, but with each passing affliction she becomes more anonymous, steps further away from her personality and closer to a commonly-recognised, and feared, possible end for us all.
This, then, is where the violence is. With one exception, Anne’s attacks happen off-screen, but they are no less terrible for it. There are no warnings, she simply deteriorates between scenes, silently and instantly. Georges shows Herculean strength coping with it, but strength is no use. Fighting won’t save Anne. The fact that all of the struggling is against the simplest of tasks such as showering and going to the loo reinforces the savagery. There is a brief glimpse of a normal life but from then on everything corrodes and crumples just as Anne does.
Riva’s performance is simply staggering. Aside from the painfully astute observations of the muscular afflictions, the slipping from nonsense to acutely self-aware clarity is brutal to watch. That’s not to discredit any of the cast, particularly Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges and Isabelle Huppert as their daughter Eva, because they are excellent too. The distinction is that they are showing us how people react, the best and worst of our hopes if we were to be faced with the same. We can relate to them. Riva becomes a shadow of a person, only briefly allowed glimpses of her former life. One can only imagine how she must have felt during filming.
All of this is not to say the film is without hope. Georges is filled with respect and devotion for Anne, and he is fiercely protective of her. No doddering fools or confused elderly tropes here. His compassion is tested but he is a loving character. The brief touches on his unspoken world in his sleep and in the closing 15 minutes are unambiguous on that, however nebulous they might be in other respects.
If I have one criticism to make it is that the film isn’t long enough, not that I wanted anything other than a peaceful ending for both Georges’ and Anne’s suffering. Everything presented is truthfully told, with great compassion, but the reality is much more mundane and lasting. There are endless baths, movements from bed to wheelchair to chair in a day, god knows how many trips to the toilet. I don’t blame Haneke for this, what I refer to here is life. Perhaps it is best so much was left out – knowing what could come brings little comfort.