Amour: Love in the time of death

Haneke directs Amour in his characteristic austere, objective and disturbing style, yet his unsentimental look is not unsympathetic 

Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata

I wanted to avoid making my film a ‘social drama’. There have been enough films that present these themes as a social drama, that deal with context and environment, with hospitals, ambulances and doctors. That’s not what I was trying to do. I didn’t want to make a social drama, but an existential drama that deals with the question: ‘How do I cope with the suffering of a loved one’” — Michael Haneke on Amour 

Amour is a movie on life, death and, as the eponymous title, indicates — love. Not the callow romanticism of youth, but a love that is mature, has weathered many a storm, and is now facing the ultimate danger that a lifelong companionship fears — death. It is a movie that is a portrait of isolation — of love as a fortress against the interminable changes that will steal in and gnaw away at its very foundation of care, compassion and loyalty.

The movie has the recurring motif of people breaching this fortress. The opening scene has firemen breaking down the door of an elegant Parisian apartment, and early on in the movie our protagonists, Anne and Georges (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean Louis Trintignant), an octogenarian couple and retired music teachers, return home from a piano recital to find that someone has tried to break into their apartment. They are disconcerted, disturbed and Georges firmly locks the door of his apartment and that’s where the couple and the audience will remain for the next two hours of the movie.

Amour takes place entirely in that elegant Parisian apartment, a portrait in isolation as Georges is witness to Anne’s first stroke at breakfast and then, as the movie progresses, to her slowly slipping away physically and mentally. Michael Haneke spares the audience nothing, neither the indignities of aging — diaper changes, a rough scrub down by a nurse, the helplessness of not being able to walk — nor the pain and desperation of Georges trying to come to terms with the transformation of his wife. Haneke’s camera also masterfully captures the things age cannot diminish — pride, dignity, intelligence and the intimacy of dialogue and gesture that marriage brings to love. Even a walk for Anne from wheelchair to living room in the arms of Georges is a slow waltz to the title of the movie.

The audience is a silent spectator of this theatre of change and at times almost wants to will away the intruders into this bastion, such as the caring yet self-absorbed daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert). Her intermittent visits are a constant reminder of the outside world to Georges, a world that offers simplistic solutions to Anne’s condition, refuses to get involved yet hypocritically shows the most overt emotion. In one of the movie’s most poignant scenes, we see Eva cry her heart out over her mother’s deteriorating condition while Georges sits dry-eyed, yet his eyes betray the desperate suffering that only he and the audience are aware of.

The masterstroke of Amour is the cast — we have seen movies about ageing, but rarely do we remember the actors from movies they acted in when they were young. Both Riva (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) and Trintignant (….And God Created Woman, Z, A Man and A Woman) are indelibly etched in the minds of movie-goers and to see them now in Amour is almost as if cinema is mirroring reality. The wrinkles, the limp, the fading beauty, the memories all seem real, capturing the illusory quality of cinema, where the past and present co-exist seamlessly. At 85, Riva has a physically demanding role, yet her demeanour and body language are pitch-perfect. Her performance is even more poignant because of her age. Her performance, played out opposite Trintignant’s, is endearing and heartbreaking because she makes such a perfect couple with him. Trintignant has the even more difficult role of the care-giver, of one whose empathy is tested to its limit, of one who is guarding himself against the inevitable, of one who changes, not suddenly, but gradually like the half-waning light that enters through the window in the movie, over days and months.

Haneke directs Amour in his characteristic austere, objective and disturbing style, yet his unsentimental look is not unsympathetic. Each scene is heartfelt and shows an insight into aging from the point of view of old age, not that of youth. The camera moves with Trintignant’s gait, the slow takes reflecting the almost imperceptible but steady crises in the couple’s life. The editing has the staccato shift of scene and time, but you don’t notice it because here, as in life, the days don’t matter, the moments do.

Amour is a movie that lays bare love — it bickers, it suffers, it coaxes, it cries, yet, above all, it endures and, as we see in the absolutely unforgettable climax scene, it is what ultimately makes Georges and Anne’s house impregnable to death, because you can kill the body but you cannot kill love.

Amour is a movie that is difficult to watch, yet it is a movie that must be watched. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2013