Directorspective: Amour (2012)

PosterAnd so we close this little “Directorspective” experiment with Haneke’s most recent and most accessible film, Amour.

Amour tells the story of Georges and Anne Laurent, an octogenarian couple living out their life in relative ease and routine, until the day that Anne has a stroke, which leaves her partially paralysed. As her condition deteriorates, it becomes Georges’ responsibility to look after her, and the majority of the film details with passionate interest the toll this takes on the dignity and sense of self for Anne, as her independence, capability, and even her life itself starts to slip out of her control.

Haneke wrote the film for leading man Jean-Louis Trintignant, who had been in retirement for the previous 14 years. In the role of Anne, we have Emmanuel Riva, an actress I’m familiar with only for this film. Isabelle Huppert also makes a few appearances as their daughter Eva, 10 years after her last collaboration with Haneke, the less-than-brilliant Time of the Wolf.

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This is a film that’s all about its characters, something that’s intriguingly different for Haneke, who usually sets his characters to be observed from a stark distance. Amour still feels like a Haneke film, but that stark emotional separation from the characters is completely absent. The story relies on us seeing Georges and Anne as people, and not as characters in a film. There’s not a single moment of the film that puts this into question; the performances are flawless and astounding.

Amour is a film about old age; it’s about its inevitability and the people going through it. There’s not a hint of the romanticised notion that it’s lovely that Georges and Anne have grown old together (although it is), because this is a film that acknowledges that after a certain point in a person’s life, it rushes towards their final days. The film is about acknowledging and recognising the effort it takes to live a life when your life is nearing its end, and it never tries to pretty up that picture. If there’s one thing that’s made clear in the film, it’s that the elderly don’t have it easy, and it’s a pretty hard slog for them to go day to day.

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Thankfully, given his heretofore-relentless cynicism and even nihilistic approach to moviemaking, Haneke invests a hell of a lot of dignity and nobility to Georges and Anne’s plight. This is not a film that’s about old people losing control of their bodies, but about what it does to the old people when this happens.

It’s not an unending horror story of what awaits the youth when youth runs out however. The film is too masterful to be as simplistic as being depressing. This is the sort of the film that celebrates the sheer miracle of being able to live a life even to its end days.

There’s a spectacular shot early in the film of Georges and Anne in a theatre, watching the performance of one of Georges’ former music students. Haneke uses a similar tactic to his masterful camera work from Caché, wherein he fills a shot with people and leaves the audience to figure out where their attention should be focussed; Georges and Anne are present of course. When the performance begins, the camera stays looking at the crowd in the theatre, rather than the pianist. Many have written their own meaning into this shot, but for me it shows that Georges and Anne are not characters in isolation.

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Although the story is centred solely on them, this opening shot shows us that these are not two characters cowering away in their apartment from the ugly world outside, but two people who have lives outside of the requirements of the film. It makes the later events of the film all the more powerful as it adds a real sense of what is being lost when Anne’s abilities are reduced.

The title is perhaps the most applicable title of Haneke’s films. Although I have my suspicions it was marketed as Amour and not Love to boost its arthouse appeal, this is a movie very much about the love the two characters share, and how having loved each other for their entire life, it makes it impossible to consider betraying one or the other in their final years by denying them their dignity even if it would make things easier.

Much as we want to applaud Georges’ devotion to caring for Anne, its undeniable that it takes its toll on him given that he is, after all, a man in his eighties, and perhaps not the most appropriate for the job. But it’s the love he has for Anne that makes him grant her request to not die in a hospital room, or be cared for by nurses who see her as a task and not a person that means he’s willing to put himself through it for her.

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And that last point is a great example of how this film appreciates the trials and tribulations of the elderly. Aged healthcare is often talked of in terms of statistics and options, of procedures and processes, but rarely as the treatment of living people. When Georges fires a nurse who is too rough with Anne, it’s clear that the two are operating from different viewpoints; the nurse tells Georges that she’s fantastic at her job and can’t understand why she’s being fired. Georges clearly understands that the “job” in this instance is his wife and that if the nurse can’t see it as clearly as that, then it’s better that she’s cared for by him, no matter the toll it may take.

The film hit very close to home for me as well; my grandmother, a woman I cherish and adore, suffered some similar limitations towards the end of her life as her dementia began to become more apparent. The saddest loss in this time was watching a fiercely independent woman lose that ability, as she had to be cared for more by others.

Amour takes that experience, one that many around the world will have experienced themselves as I did, and acknowledges the sadness of it, but also commemorates that the life lived before that point is not made unremarkable due to the final days.

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When Anne eventually dies (not a spoiler, the film opens with this), Georges adorns her bed with flowers and makes her look immaculate. It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of the film itself, but it brings it back down to the largest point of the film. This is a point that Haneke has made by throwing out his usual cold indifference to his characters, by getting close to them and allowing their stories to be told in full, and not as stepping stones on a path to a larger artistic statement.

That point is respect. He clearly respects what it means to go through old age in such a way that your body deteriorates, that your dignity gets put on hold so that you can go on living, and he clearly respects how hard this is and what a toll it takes on those around you. The film is all about how to handle the suffering of a loved one, and what length people will go to for the ones they love.

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It’s not an easy watch; in fact, it’s quite devastating. But it’s not an endlessly depressing slump of the decline of a person’s health during their old age. It’s a powerful movie, and the performances from Trintignant and Riva are truly something to behold. It’s an astoundingly good movie, and it’s never once cheap or sentimental, it never plays anything for easy tragedy and it never once allows you to pity its characters.

I may have called Caché his masterpiece, and I stand by that given the themes and skills he’s shown in his previous work – for everything that he’s done before, that film is the culmination of his skills and style. But without a doubt, Amour is Haneke’s best film, and hands-down the best film of last year.

* The screenshots I took for this review were initially a bit dark – I’ve manipulated the colour to make them clearer, which is why they look a bit overexposed.

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