Michael Haneke’s latest has been one of the most buzzed-about films of in the approach to Cannes, and with good reason. Haneke, best known for his ambiguous slow-burn dramas like Cache and The White Ribbon, renders his most involving tale to date, a haunting but richly rewarding drama about the inevitabilities of old age.
The first image we glimpse in Amour is of a taped-up house, ending with a reveal of the fate awaiting at least one half of a married couple in this heartbreaking but uncommonly humane drama. Haneke then sends us back to happier times, to meet Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emanuelle Riva), an elderly couple still very much in love, affectionate if probably best described as companions by this point.
The moment Anne’s blank face stares at Georges during a typical afternoon conservation, he and we immediately know something is wrong. French actress Riva, little known outside of her native cinema, is at 85-years-old an astonishing presence, her expressive, beautifully child-like face becoming the film’s most important asset as she is struck down by a series of strokes. In painstaking detail, Haneke observes her transformation from a warm, articulate soul into a mute, scarcely recognisable husk, where all that remains is her pained countenance.
It’s an upsetting film, but pleasantly avoids both misery porn and syrupy sentiment, aching with humanity from first frame to last. The title, of course, is the central theme; as Georges helps Anne perform the day to day duties that she increasingly cannot – and ones which become increasingly undignified for each of them – we’re very sure what we’re seeing is the most striking depiction of the feeling on screen in some time.
It lives on, at least to begin with, and Haneke slowly observes, as Anne’s grasp on reality diminishes, how this comes to impact their life-long bond. Dedicated as he is, the film simply wouldn’t be playing fair if we didn’t get to see Georges lash out now and then; slowly exasperation replaces joy in their relationship, as he becomes more frustrated with her forgetfulness, but adamantly refuses to put her in a home – as she made him promise this – despite the request of their daughter (Isabelle Huppert).
Those who are not fond of Haneke’s deliberate, drip-fed approach are unlikely to be swayed here, though it is absolutely the director’s most accessible film to date, wringing out inescapably relatable drama and steering away from unnecessary grimness. Despite running in at a considerable 127 minutes, this feels like one of the director’s shortest works, a testament to his superb double duty as writer-director, alongside the gripping, magnetic performances.
At the end of the road, it’s a future that could await us or any partner we may meet, and that’s why Amour proves the director’s best and most moving work. More likely to evoke a solemn feeling of sadness than a flood of tears, this is among the most unconventional films of its type; an anti-weepie that derives a far grander power altogether. Haneke’s film is unquestionably the feel-bad film of the year, refreshingly lacking in sentiment and absolutely devastating, but also abuzz with the joys that make life worth living.
We are currently seeking Film contributors on WhatCulture. To find out more about the perks of being a Film contributor, click here.