Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning film begins at the end. Police break into a middle-class apartment and discover the body of Anne, laid out peacefully on a bed, the net curtains gently moved by the wind from an open window. Thus, we know where we’re headed as the story zips back months to introduce us to Georges and Anne as we examine the limits of love in a film far removed from the usual photoshopped renditions of what that word can mean. Georges and Anne have been together for most of their lives. They have a grown-up daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert). They have lived comfortably and in love for all of this time, as far as we can tell. A happy couple. But this is all set to be tested in the cruel mundanity of old age and ill-health.
Anne suffers a stroke, and a medical procedure to assist her fails to work as it ought to. She becomes part of the 5% failure rate statistic. All of which leaves her paralysed down the right hand side and reliant on Georges for virtually all the routines that she would normally take for granted. He lifts her into and out of bed, onto and off of the toilet. He helps her to eat and to drink. As much as she would prefer not to she becomes dependent on him in this way. She comes to hate the burden she perceives herself to be, whilst Georges quietly tries to hold things together. He is kind and patient and shrugs off the suggestion that anything he has to do for her is a burden. He’d do it regardless because he loves her.
This is the love that Michael Haneke has to show us. And over the course of two deliberate hours – during which we barely leave the apartment at all – Amour shows us how tender it must be to watch the person you’ve made a life with slowly disappear. Is love selfish or selfless? We see that it is both.
Haneke does this without histrionics. At one point Georges says to Eva that he wants to avoid drama. In a conventional sense, so too does Haneke’s film. Most of the key dramatic story points happen between the scenes. We lurch in time to the aftermath of incidents, focusing not on the tears, setbacks and investigations, but instead on the mezzanine hours; meals, time spent listening to CDs, visits from well-wishers. Because of this Amour feels fiercely controlled and measured. There is no musical score, and most of the time the camera remains static for sustained takes. This is as much about the awful silence of waiting as it is about anything else.
This might sound as miserable as hell, but because of the film’s rigorous focus on the small moments between Georges and Anne, it instead feels more thoughtful and subdued than emotionally exhaustive. The audience isn’t told how to feel about what is happening, we simply witness it. There are even moments of joy here. The cinema crowd I shared Amour with tittered happily at Anne’s delight upon testing out her joystick-controlled wheelchair. And, thanks to the tremendous work by both Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, found both Georges and Anne wholly endearing, even when at their worst.
Whilst most of the film is doggedly naturalistic – some might say to a fault; in the wrong frame of mind Amour might severely test some people’s patience – Haneke occasionally takes us to unusual places. A dream sequence midway through feels eerily real, whilst an early and seemingly incongruous story point in which the door to the apartment is tampered with adds a strange sense of foreboding, an omen of the far more serious forced entry seen at the film’s beginning.
Slowly, claustrophobia sets in despite the luxurious spaces the two share. As the film progresses, doors are closed more and more, until even the characters are shut away from one another. Then, after the inevitable, Haneke presents us the space opened up once more, as Eva ruminates on the lives and love of her parents.
And what is the purest act of love? To let someone go, or to hold onto them at all costs, even beyond where you can follow them? Amour poses questions and feels curiously studious. I felt for these characters, I hoped for them and I grieved with them, but at the same time I felt as though there was a clinical detachment in Haneke’s presentation. An almost Kubrickian study as opposed to an emotive experience. This seems deliberate. And the end result is that Amour feels like an artistic endeavour rather than a dramatic showcase.
It is admirable to see such a commonplace and tragic side of life depicted like this. Whether that makes Amour an ‘important’ film remains to be seen, and will ultimately come down to the viewer’s own assessment. For me this was a slow, quiet, beautiful study of love at it’s end. And of love that is also endless.