by Padraic Coffey
Those familiar with Michael Haneke’s output may interpret the 12A certificate of his latest film Amour as a sign that the Austrian auteur behind such intense works as Benny’s Video, Funny Games and The Piano Teacher is mellowing in old age, having turned 70 this year. They would be wrong to do so, however. Amour is no departure for Haneke; it is a beautiful though often uncomfortable viewing experiencing, echoing themes explored earlier in the director’s uniquely impressive back catalogue. It begins with octogenarian married couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) attending the concert of a former student, Anne having been a music teacher prior to retirement. We catch a glimpse of their daily routine – bus travel, breakfast – before Anne suffers a debilitating stroke. Expressing a desire to be euthanised before the onset of complete dependency, Georges opts to care for Anne almost entirely unaided, curtailing the efforts of neighbours, nurses and even their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert). This leads to a predictably tragic climax.
Proceeding with a bleak inevitability, Amour is a reminder of the almost total absence of elderly relationships in cinema. Few filmmakers stray from the anodyne archetype of couples in their twenties and thirties. To see Trintignant and Riva, both of whom have been a presence in cinema since the 1950s, interact is both startling and poignant. Trintignant may be most recognisable to international audiences as the shark-eyed titular character in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, whereas Riva made her debut in Alan Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour. In Amour, both actors exude hitherto untapped vulnerability, making their onscreen counterparts’ impending mortality all the more resonant. Whether Amour is an explicit exploration of ageism in cinema by Haneke is debatable, though it depicts a lifestyle few filmgoers will have seen before, outside of the likes of Mark Rydell’s On Golden Pond.
Haneke’s static visual style and lack of incidental music are utilised in documenting George and Anne’s lush Parisian apartment, the setting for almost the entire film. The director’s penchant for presenting clustered images which intentionally mislead his audience’s focus has not waned; an early shot of a crowded auditorium recalls the justly celebrated closing scene of Caché. There are other allusions to earlier Haneke films in peripheral media references to Israel (Caché) and Anne’s former profession (The Piano Teacher). Unlike Benny’s Video or Funny Games, Amour does not strive for categorisation in a subgenre of horror, though one scene, in which Georges investigates mysterious noises at night, is among the most tense of the year. The title ‘Amour‘ is one which me be construed as plainly unambiguous, or a scathing appraisal of Georges’ behaviour. As the film progresses, his efforts in keeping Anne alive appear to stem as much fear of loneliness as any altruistic leaning.
Amour won the coveted Palme d’Or, the second consecutive Haneke film to do so, after 2009’s The White Ribbon. This further cements a reputation few European filmmakers can match.