After taking out awards in almost every film festival in the world, including the Palme d'Or and the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Michael Haneke's 'Amour' is finally here. It's been a long wait for those who didn't catch the film at the Melbourne or Sydney Film Festivals, but when it comes to an artist like Haneke, the wait should always be worth it. Everything seems to suggest that 'Amour' is a departure for him; his previous work such as 'Funny Games' (1996) and 'Hidden' (2005) exploring violence and its relationship and depiction in cinema. A drama about old age doesn't really fit in his filmography. But this is Michael Hakeke, and the rules of cinema don't always apply to him.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) area retired couple in their eighties, enjoying their later years together in their beautiful Parisian apartment. Their lives are relatively self-contained and comfortable, with no real reliance on anyone other than each other. When Anne suffers a stroke, however, that stability begins to fracture, and Georges finds himself having to care for his wife as she swiftly loses physical control. As her condition deteriorates, their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) tries to convince Georges to seek help, but he refuses, promising Anne not to abandon her to a hospice or home.
In the hands of any other director, this is the kind of material that would make quite the sentimental tear jerker, a melodramatic story of two people in love and overcoming adversity in an effort to stay together. In the hands of Haneke, it becomes something far more striking and far more powerful. Sentimentality is not in his nature, and 'Amour' avoids that trap entirely, placing us as observers to this relationship without any emotional manipulation. In his previous work, Haneke used the camera as a detached observer without judgement or investment, and he does the same here. He probably has a better understanding of the role of an audience in cinema that any other director, and understands how best to position us for the maximum effect. Darius Khondji's cinematography and Nadine Muse and Monkia Willi's editing aren't dramatic in any way, often leaving the still image sitting on figures in space doing very little, but this works brilliantly with the conceit of the film. Even though we are watching a life come to an end, what 'Amour' says at its heart is that this relationship and these moments are nothing extraordinary, nothing that stops the universe from functioning. This is just life as it is, often more dull and unforgiving than we want to admit. Haneke has made a career of defying audience expectations, and he avoids every opportunity at manufactured affection or sentimentality for the sake of emotional satisfaction. Because of this, 'Amour' is often a difficult film to watch, and as Anne's body shuts down bit by bit and Georges is forced to watch his wife and life fall apart, it doesn't hold back from being as brutally honest as possible. This isn't an attempt at faux-documentary, neither is it exploitative and designed entirely to make the audience feel awful. It is exquisitely a film that is what it is, and simply asks you to feel whatever it is you feel. For all its technical simplicity, this is most definitely the kind of work that only cinema is capable of.
Isabelle Huppert may be the recognisable international star in the film (and one of Haneke's most loyal collaborators), but this film belongs entirely to Trintignant and Riva, both delivering shattering and merciless performances. A majority of the praise and awards recognition has been directed at Riva (who probably should have been the Best Actress Oscar winner), and her performance is easily the most physically demanding of the two. Anne's deterioration is recreated in frightening and painful detail, and Riva pushes herself to her physical limit with total fearlessness. Just as distressing and powerful is her refusal to make Anne the martyr, instead allowing her to be as frustrated and petulant as someone whose body refuses to cooperate with their mind. Without Trintignant, however, this would all come to naught. Georges provides the perspective through which to witness Anne's collapse, and Trintignant crafts him with a beautifully subtlety. This is a man who has resigned himself to his and his wife's fate, but without the crushing pessimism that comes with such hopelessness. He tends to his wife, works her through vocal exercises and provides all the care he can with the complete understanding that none of it will make her better. "Things will go on", he says to Eva, "and one day it will all be over." When the moments come for Georges to break, Trintignant works completely against expectations and refuses to make any moments out of them. Just like Riva, Trintignant refuses to make Georges a perfect, good man. In fact, he often acts unforginingly to his wife and daughter. But that only makes Georges more of a human being. What these two exceptional actors have crafted are two people, not characters or cyphers, and thanks to their incredible work, their situation is entirely relatable regardless of your age or background.
'Amour' is often a difficult film to watch.
For many, this might be their first experience with the work of Michael Haneke, and most likely, they'll find his film language unusual and difficult to handle. While most international filmmakers seem to be crafting their films for the art house audiences and awards circuit, Haneke is a director who works to the beat of his own drum, and any recognition is a nice bonus. 'Amour' might be his most accessible film to date, but that doesn't make it any less confronting or powerful. This is an exquisite film building towards a shattering yet understated climax. Everything about it feels personal and considered, and executed with every detail calibrated perfectly. Yet another work of art from one of the most important artists in the cinema.