The Review: Michael Haneke is one of those directors from whom the label auteur clearly applies; he’s probably one of that select band that could become an adjective, and any film given that description will give the viewer a clear idea of what to expect; moral ambiguity, a desire to get the viewer to experience a strong reaction, a dissection of the art of cinema itself, with a tendency to staccato bursts of violence and often an alienating coldness. Haneke’s 2009 film, The White Ribbon, picked up the Palme D’Or at Cannes and gained more affection that most of his previous films, based in no small part on the sympathetic central characters and even more surprising bursts of tenderness. For his latest film (picking up his second award on La Croisette), Haneke again takes things to extremes, although this time it’s that most human experience that he’s keen to push to its limit.
His real master stroke here is in the casting. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva have both had long, colorful and reasonably distinguished careers but now carry the heft of their actual years (Trintignant takes his first part in about a decade at 81; Riva, while still working regularly, is now 85). Not only do they convincingly portray two lives being lived to their fullest and latest extremes, but they have a believable chemistry that makes their portrayal of a couple being driven apart by the onset of their years all the more poignant. There’s also quality in the supporting cast, not least from Isabelle Huppert as the frustrated daughter seemingly unable do anything but stand at the sidelines and watch on helplessly.
What plays out is the story of the end of this couple’s relationship, at a time when their love for each other seems to be stronger than ever, almost painfully so. Although we’re left in no doubt as to the eventual outcome by the first scene, the initial scenes of general life and affection from Trintignant and Riva make it all the more harrowing when Riva first suffers her stroke, and from then on the depiction of life’s difficulties is about as honest as you could imagine. From there, the performances diverge with Riva required more to show the ravages on the body of old age, while Trintignant must bear the burden of her afflictions mentally and spiritually. Both performances are of the highest order and between them, Anne and Georges (a regular Haneke touch) will put you through the emotional wringer.
So to the director himself, and Michael Haneke’s using a few other regular tricks here, including a wide shot in a theatre early on with the characters almost lost in the background (but for their age, they’d be completely invisible). As always, every single detail is meticulously planned and fine tuned, with even the title coming over as very deliberate (Amour, lacking the usual French definitive article of the more romantic sounding L’Amour). Generally, he keeps the direction slow and deliberate, restricting the surprises to a dream sequence and a visit from a pigeon later on. But in terms of Haneke’s achievement, Amour successfully encapsulates the devastation of the passage of time and the inevitability of old age, and it feels almost churlish to say that’s all it does, lacking slightly some of the complex insights or more deliberate provocation of Haneke’s other works. There’s certainly a purity and simplicity in terms of the insight to the human condition in comparison to the other best works of Haneke, but odd details (such as the dream sequence) jar due to the deep-seated reality of what surrounds them, and when the ending comes it doesn’t quite feel like the true gut-punch it should, drenched in the inevitability of both its own film maker and the narrative course it’s taken. Still another significant achievement in the career of Michael Haneke, and confirmation that a heart does beat within his chest after all, even if it has a darkness to it.
Why see it at the cinema: Haneke’s works are designed to be seen in the cinema, from the first shot after the credits to the intensity of the ending, so that’s where you need to be to commit yourself fully.
The Score: 9/10