An intimate two-hander between Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, Michael Haneke’s Amour sneaks a peek at love behind Parisian closed doors.
In The Bedroom by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
If there is a key to Michael Haneke’s Amour then it is, ironically, the locked door. When Georges, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, bars the path to his daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) from seeing his debilitated and bedridden wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), it’s a casual and spontaneous act of emotional violence, a passive aggressive means of forbidding her from seeing her now senile mother. And while not exactly paved with good intentions, it’s envisaged by Georges as both an act of kindness (sparing unnecessary sadness) and an attempt to draw a line in the sandy ethics of seeing – for none of this deserves to be shown. It is of course a metaphor for Amour with Georges as the stand-in director, deciding what Eva, the audience, can and can’t see. And for a film staged almost entirely in the elderly Parisians’ apartment, the locked door questions the viewer’s right of strangers to peer into the private (albeit fictional) lives behind closed doors. This ethics of seeing equates to a kind of fourth wall immorality and for us as for Eva, we are but visitors to this purgatory of pain and hardship, able to enjoy the simple catharsis of cinema, salve our consciences and leave.
This moral quandary runs all the way through Amour, reprising as it does the final scene of Hidden, with a very Hanekian shot of the audience at the Theatre des Champs Elysees, gathering for a recital and waiting for Anne’s former piano pupil Alexandre to start playing. For a moment, we’re not sure where to look, until Anne and Georges stand to allow another theatre-goer to pass; our gaze floating and unfocused. It’s also, of course, a mirror – the audience in the cinema watching another circle of red velvet chairs, a looking glass in which the acts of seeing and performing are conflated and polemicised. Haneke’s camera throughout Amour lingers over such “blank” shots – detachedly observing the elderly couple’s empty, moon-lit apartment, close-ups of their living room paintings as well as fixed camera shots of the concierge hoovering and Alexandre waiting, rhythmic hiatuses in the everyday drama like an entr’acte.
Music, like in Haneke’s Viennese Conservatoire drama The Piano Teacher is a recurrent theme, verbalised by Anne’s incredible pride in her protégé’s semiquavers in the presto. Amid the ugly, quotidian violence of the real, with its attempted burglaries and brutal arguments reminiscent of Code Inconnu, music provides an embalming calmness. Until, that is, Anne’s failed operation deprives her of the ability to play, and listening becomes a painful reminder of an irretrievable past and an unbearable present. The music must stop. And once Anne deteriorates even further, retreating into a cocoon of desperate moans and groans, there’s a welcome illusion of normality as Anne sits at the piano while the music plays. The image of her former self is restored, albeit briefly, until Georges decides to turn off the CD and re-enter reality.
Reality for Georges and Anne is a slow fade. From Anne’s disappearance at the kitchen table where all faculties momentarily recede into blankness and life in a wheelchair following an unsuccessful operation with a 5% failure rate life to a second stroke and visiting nurses, existence becomes hard for the octogenarians in love. Emmanuelle Riva is a wonder as the half-paralysed Anne, vociferously and militantly unhappy at losing her mobility and dignity, and slowly extinguished into gibberish and incontinence, with only the rarest glimpse of lucidity. Jean-Louis Trintignant returns to the silver screen with all the devilish lovability manifested in Kieslowski’s Three Colours Red, bearing the burden of care and keeping the love alive, patiently washing Anne’s hair or tenderly stroking her hand.
Just as in all of Haneke’s films, there’s a moment of sudden and shocking violence to interrupt this everyday pastoral of love in all its ageing banality. And while Amour may appear to philosophise over the question of murder as an act of love, Haneke goes even further. George’s suffocation of Anne is a selfish-selfless act, freeing her from the hospital she fears and her miserable life, liberating himself from an impossible, incessant burden and escaping together to recover the happiness of the past. It’s no coincidence that the final scene in which Anne reappears in a vision to Georges, leads him out of the apartment on an everyday excursion into the void – Georges, reunited with Anne in the past, quits the present to join her in an unknown future. Like the story of George’s unhappy childhood stay in a holiday camp, where he was once quarantined after contracting diphtheria, Amour is the story of love from the other side of the glass, which can only be broken by a violent act of love.
It’s perhaps worrying that all of Georges’ violent outbursts – refusing his daughter entry to Anne’s bedroom, or slapping his wife when she spits out the water he’s desperate for her to drink – are concluded with an apology. And while we may anticipate a certain self-recrimination and regret for Georges’ final violent act, he’s spared by a vision of togetherness – either inspired by phantasmagoria, repressed guilt or senility. Still, Amour is Haneke’s warmest film to date – a demonstration of the glorious banality of love, the silent bond fused over two lifetimes, love reduced to a soft glance or a delicate touch. Beyond Haneke’s disciplinarian direction, the performances of the two screen veterans are superb, evoking love’s indestructibility and an inseparable past, present and future. And it’s a heartbreaking portrait of the sad humiliation of old age, robbed in one way or another of life’s force. Haneke’s film is perhaps not as grandiose or emotionally intense as you might expect, but Amour is still a quietly moving peek into a relationship disappearing behind a closing door.
Amour is released on 16th November 2012 in the UK