Love In A Cold Climate: On Michael Haneke's Amour...
Michael Haneke’s films often invite a strong reaction from their audience. That might be horror, as with 1997’s home-invasion nightmare Funny Games, or perhaps disgust, as a murder committed by a teenage boy is covered up by his parents in 1992’s Benny’s Video, or both of the above with added bewilderment as a bourgeois couple kill their young daughter, flush their money down a toilet, and commit a painfully drawn out suicide in his first film, The Seventh Continent (1989).
Rarely, though does Haneke ask his audience to connect emotionally with his characters. There is, you might say, an element of abstract detachment to his explorations of civilization and its discontents. Often (as with The Seventh Continent) his films might be said to revolve around the actions of characters whose motives, while conforming to some sort of cruel logic, are not necessarily easy to empathise with. The voyeuristic, sadomasochistic and self-harming impulses of Isabelle Huppert’s character in The Piano Teacher (2001) for example, or, perhaps, the sinister behavior of the village children in his last picture, The White Ribbon (2009).
All of which means that his latest work, Amour, sits at odds with much of the rest of his oeuvre. Every Haneke film explores issues that are essentially human – often that’s perversions and problems caused by modern Western consumer and visual cultures – but Amour (the clue is in the title) is his most frank exploration of the human condition yet, a film that confronts the limits of endurance, dependence, old age and mortality.
Octogenarian couple Anne and Georges (superb performances both from Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) live alone in their Parisian flat, an existence that is put under severe pressure after Anne suffers a minor stroke and begins to decline in health. Aside from an early scene where the couple return by bus from a concert, the film is confined to their increasingly isolated flat.
Anne and Georges have few guests; their cold self-obsessed daughter (Isabelle Huppert) and her unwelcome (and unfaithful) English husband arrive and leave, as does a successful former piano student of Anne’s and the building’s helpful concierge and his wife. There’s also a hostile nurse sent to care for Anne, who is soon dismissed by Georges (her cruel behavior Haneke has stated is a comment on society’s treatment of the elderly and infirm). These guests bring with them glimpses of concerns from the outside world that continues unabated outside the flat’s four walls. Inside, illuminated in a cold winter light, a quiet, unseen and unheard tragedy is taking place; this is how the world ends in a Michael Haneke film - not with a bang but a slow, drawn out whimper.
Once Anne suffers her stroke, her decline is inevitable. Haneke is a director who is constantly aware of the focus of his audience’s gaze (he’s spoken in depth on that subject) so the realities and dehumanising practicalities of Anne’s decline, and Georges' struggle to cope with it, is shown in detail across many scenes. Love in its many guises, of course, is a subject that’s provided cinema with many of its most iconic moments, this though is ‘love’ Haneke style, witnessed at its inevitable conclusion, captured during its endgame.
There’s a clue to Haneke’s conscious refusal to sentimentalise his story in his decision to name his characters Georges and Anne, the stereotypical bourgeois names he’s used for central couples in many of his films. Absent, also, are allusions to happier times or any real biographical details. Instead, we are watching a stoic endurance of decline. When Anne attempts to stop eating in, presumably, an attempt to end her misery, Georges slaps her because he cannot bear to see her give up – throughout the couples companionship beneath the hard realities of their dependency is implied not explicit.
Amour poses less questions than Haneke’s very best work (71 Fragments, Hidden, The White Ribbon), but that’s hardly a criticism. In reality it is perhaps Haneke’s most thorough accomplishment of his well documented aim of producing cinema that in its detachment encourages self reflection in his audience; and who’d have thought that a cinematic climate as unsentimental and cold as that of a Michael Haneke film might provide such an original take on such an unoriginal theme?
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