Amourby Brandon Edmonds / 25.07.2012
There’s a moment in the opening of Michael Haneke’s prize-winning new film Amour that kills me. It may be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Human and life-affirming and the absolute incarnation of love. But you have to experience this wrenching, harrowing film to want to cling to that moment once it’s done – only knowing the horror of what comes after makes the moment as overwhelming as it is. I’ll tell you what it is at the end.
Georges and Anne are old music teachers who have been together their whole adult lives. They are wonderful together. Still amused by each other and curious, tender and considerate, still offering each other insights, mutually making sense of the world, sharing themselves, their love is as much a natural fact as the passing seasons, as nightfall. Then Anne has a stroke that paralyses her right side. She zones out at lunch and the grim process of loss, terrible and inevitable, begins. Anne falls apart. Her coherence as a serious adult crumbles like wet paper. Her independence falters. It is too much to bear as we watch her husband bravely manage the reality of her decline. This is natural and convincing movie acting which becomes so much more than craft or performance once we remember who these performers are and how central their careers are to the history of cinema.
Anne is played by Emmanuelle Riva who is 85 years old now and still so beautiful. She was ravishing, tormented and naked in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), a film that broke boundaries (she’s entwined with a Japanese lover only a decade after the war) and showed how film can make history personal and emotional and how beautiful people look most beautiful onscreen. When we see a nurse manhandle her in the shower in this new film, we see her geriatric body, the time-bitten ruin of it, and Haneke knows you are remembering the supple inflaming smoothness of her perfect younger body in that earlier film, which was about, amongst other things, how skin is the transmitting surface of experience.
Jean-Louis Trintignant, who plays Georges, has a career that defines post-war French cinema. He was the embodiment of brainy, sensitive, horny French masculinity in A Man and a Woman (1966) and Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s (1969), a typecast he imploded by playing the callow easily led opportunist in Bertolucci’s insanely stylish and darkly brilliant The Conformist (1970). He is unforgettable as the voyeuristic judge in Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Red (1994). And now this: his finest work, at 82 years old, playing Georges, a man forced to witness the erasure of everything that matters to him, the living end of the woman he loves.
Their work together here will never be bettered. It is for all time. What Haneke is possibly also suggesting, casting these two, is the end of the kind of cinema, serious and uncompromising, they helped create, a kind of film-making more fascinated by human beings than superheroes.
Not that Haneke gets everything right. He ruins the film in the end. The unfeeling, cold Kubrick side of him (so evident in his savagely gruelling Funny Games (1997) steps in and makes George do something that doesn’t feel right. It’s an act designed to provoke the chattering classes. It is stupid and ugly and I won’t spoil it for you.
Which brings us to the opening moment. After we’ve witnessed Anna’s dissolution into incoherence, been there with her through the frustration, the pointlessness and pain, we remember this moment. More powerful even than when in the midst of her broken speech she manages to tell Georges, “It was nice.” Their life together, she means. Their love. Haneke opens the film with us staring at an audience staring back at us. They are waiting for a concert to begin. And just as the music starts Georges looks at his beautiful wife. He associates her with music, with beauty, with everything true and worthwhile about life. That is love, and it kills me. This film matters.
*Amour shows at DIFF 2012 on the 29th July at 4:15PM at Suncoast Cinema C.