Directed by Michael Haneke

Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert
In UK cinemas from November 16, 2012

by Louise Mothersole

Amour is Michael Haneke’s most depressing and hopeless film to date.

The film begins with firemen unceremoniously crashing into an apartment, alerted by the pungent smell of death, and finding the body of an old woman grotesquely laid out in bed with flowers like a nimbus around her head. A moment later, the film’s title Amour appears on the screen. Combined with the horror and discomfort of seeing a shrunken corpse, the use of the word ‘Love’ seems incongruous.

The rest of the film painstakingly details the events of the months which led to the opening scene. A happily married elderly couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) go about their daily routine until it is disrupted by Anne having a stroke over breakfast which leaves her paralysed down one side. So begins the slow decline of Anne’s health and Georges’ transition from husband to full-time carer.

It is heartbreaking to watch Anne’s distress as she loses, bit by bit, her independence, her dignity and herself. Georges’ gruff tenderness and unwavering devotion throughout is both touching and believable. Riva and Trintignant are brilliant – they both manage to artfully portray the distress of their characters’ horrible, yet sadly commonplace, downfall without crossing the fine line into over-dramatics.

Haneke’s direction is, likewise, subtle. He manages to incorporate symbolism and foreshadowing without disrupting the mundanity of the situation. Note the use of the kitchen tap and running water, the treatment of music throughout the film, Haneke’s ongoing experiment with the use of gaze, the pigeon who has a starring role in two scenes, and the timely sounds of street-traffic entering the apartment.

There is a brilliant line on the part of Georges which sums up largely what Haneke is exploring throughout the film: ‘Imagination and reality have little in common’. The meaning of that phrase shifts over time. To begin with, it is a slight on ‘schmalzy’ romance which cannot stand up in comparison with the reality of genuine love. By the end of the film, imagination is the only escape from the despair of reality as departures into Georges’ sentimental and glorified memories are introduced.

My favourite moments of the film were when reality shifts, usually in conjunction with the introduction of outside characters. As an audience member, I bought into the ‘normalcy’ and romance of the married couple’s everyday struggles with deteriorating health. The early moments when Georges is trying to shift Anne from one chair to another is made to look like a slow, awkward dance. When Georges is then exercising Anne’s limbs so they won’t atrophy, it is reminiscent of a dancer and dance trainer preparing for a performance. However, whenever a character from ‘outside’ this norm is introduced (the neighbours, a former piano student, and even their daughter – played artfully by Isabelle Huppert), the reality of the situation, as seen by others thuds heavily home. The neighbours treat Georges as a saint for bothering to attend so dutifully to his wife. Georges and Anne experience a good day when their former pupil comes to visit, but their moods are shattered when he refers to the meeting as a ‘beautiful and sad moment’. And the daughter looks upon their whole lifestyle with horror, dismay and bitter tears.

As well-executed, clever and beautiful as this film is, it is not remotely enjoyable. It is – purposefully – frustratingly slow-paced and filled with a sense of futility. There are only two moments of genuine light-heartedness in the film, and on both occasions it is when the couple are discussing funerals and death. Michael Haneke manipulates the audience into longing for the end as wholeheartedly as Anne.

If you think you can stomach putting yourself through a visceral mire of misery for two hours, I would definitely recommend Amour. I have only one criticism about the film; I felt that Haneke, having done so well throughout, gave in to cinematic convention in the penultimate scene. I don’t want to spoil it, but there was a sudden introduction of a new concept which, I felt, undermined the emotional pull of the rest of the film. However some may prefer to draw some hope from the same scene. I will leave that to you to decide.

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