Austrian auteur Michael Haneke has made a habit of challenging taboos in his 20-odd year cinematic career, from racial conflict in Hidden, media violence in Funny Games and the emptiness of modern life in The Seventh Continent. He has an innate ability to hone in on what he deems to be troubling Western society, and subject it to his own meticulous cinematic scalpel. Reaching his 70th year, he has turned towards an issue that he himself will surely be contemplating in the years to come; the ageing process.
Working again in his adopted home town of Paris, he has written a film about an elderly couple living alone in their apartment, stalked by the threat of growing old and senile. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) were both involved in classical music; Anne was evidently a teacher, Georges’ occupation unclear. They are still in love, though prone to the occasional niggle at each other. They spend their days inside the apartment, and Haneke’s camera coyly avoids the outside world. Their only visitors are their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) and friendly neighbours.
The film clicks into gear when the two sit down to breakfast one morning. Georges asks Anne something, but there is no reply. She just stares into space. It is this single moment which indicates the tragic decline of Anne’s mental and physical state. Haneke has a way of conjuring immense foreboding with just the tiniest of events; think back to the teens whose seemingly innocent request for some eggs in Funny Games sets in motion the terrible chain of events. So it is a film about the two lovers coming to deal with the loss of life as they know it, and the gradual downward cycle. Typically cheery Haneke fare then.
Haneke makes pains to create a disparity between the couple and the outside world; it is a us vs. them scenario. A visit from a cherished former pupil ends with him declaring the ‘sadness’ of the situation. Their daughter challenges Georges, issues him with thinly veiled ultimatums, while the newly employed nurses are impersonal and rough with Anne. It is only their downstairs neighbours who exude any real empathy with their situation, and it is no surprise that they are not so much younger. Haneke seems to be indicating a clear age divide between those who see a terrible scenario unfolding and those who have to live through it.
Amour is not an easy film to watch, but often the most rewarding films are also the most challenging. It is a struggle to think of many films that deal with ageing fullstop, let alone in such an uncompromising way, so for that Haneke should be applauded. The performances by the veteran actors Trintignant and Riva are superb and devoid of vanity. Aesthetically the film is classic Haneke; muted interiors, wide angle shots, long takes. The most striking thing about this new film, though, even despite the grim subject matter, is a sense of humanity creeping in throughout the film. Yes, there are moments of domestic horror and cruelty, but the defining emotion is the one clung to by the couple; amour.