Friday, December 21, 2012

Amour (****)

Written and Directed by Michael Haneke


Amour is about something that almost everybody has to deal with eventually, but that's not talked about very much, and is almost never shown with such stark detail as it is here. Georges and Anne are both retired music teachers, in their eighties, living in Paris with what appears to be a wholly solid, long-lasting marriage that has produced at least one daughter (at least, that's what the film shows) and several successful students that have gone on to success in the music industry. After decades of being together, I'd imagine that it would seem like nothing could pull you apart from your life partner. But when Anne has a stroke, and her quality of life begins to spiral down quickly and dramatically, it seems to be the first time that their near-lifelong commitment to each other will be tested.

It starts pretty harmlessly. As they have breakfast one morning, suddenly Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) stops speaking in the middle of a conversation with Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). When Georges tries to ask her what's wrong, she does not respond, instead staring blankly ahead without any expression. Scared, Georges begins to get ready as if getting ready to take her to the hospital. But just like that, Anne is back again, and she doesn't even recall the whole exchange that just happened moments before. Now, Anne is the one who is scared as Georges' probing questions to find out what happened confuse and befuddle her. Georges realizes that things like that do not happen for no reason and that he should take Anne in for some medical attention.

After Anne's first stroke, the left side of her body is paralyzed. She must be wheeled around in a wheelchair and whenever she wants to be moved to a chair, or bed, or even go to the bathroom she must get assistance. As her loyal husband, Georges is more than happy to help her out and move her from place to place, but Anne does not deal well with the life of a cripple. She soon resents her handicap and hates burdening her husband with her constant need of assistance. One day, Georges comes home to find her on the floor next to an open window - lord knows why she'd opened the window to begin with. By the second stroke, Anne is almost totally debilitated. In need of a tri-weekly nurse and unable to feed herself (and barely able to speak), Georges notices the workload getting heavier and heavier.

Jean-Louie Trintignant as Georges
Their daughter, Eva (Isabella Huppert) is concerned, but she has already established her own life and lives with her family abroad. Her experience with Anne's health usually amounts to her seeing the state of her mother every once in a while and becoming overwhelmed by just how much worse she's gotten. Eva and her husband Geoff (William Shimell) advise Georges that he should seek extra help, but Georges refuses. He promised Anne that he would not take her back to the hospital, and he's not about to put her in a home now that she's lost her sense. He's committed to sticking it out till the end. But the stretch run is a long one, and Anne's mood grows more and more sour as her dependence grows higher and higher. Throughout the story, Georges and Anne's love never breaks, but their patience takes great strain.

What makes this new film from Austrian auteur Michael Haneke so compelling is just how unflinching and bare it is. We are never told how strong/fragile Georges and Anna's marriage has been over the years, or if they have have any other children outside of Eva (Issabella Huppert). In a lot of ways, we can tell just by the way Georges and Anne interact - soft, deprecating comments toward each other that can inform without insulting - that they've been loyally in it for the long haul. But Haneke is solely concerned with the now of the situation, depicting Anne's declining health with such devastating detail, but never allowing the story to wallow in sentiment. In its lead roles, it has two heavyweights of the French screen-acting community: Trintignant and Riva, both of which give performances of such striking heartbreak as their spirits crumble under the weight of what ails Anne. The documentation of Anne's path toward death is so clinical and chilly, but it's the performances from Trintignant and Riva that bring moments of real moments of warmth within the tragedy.

I've never been a huge fan of the work of Michael Haneke. The White Ribbon and Cache felt too affected for my taste, and their extra long running times seemed particularly long considering this. Both versions of Funny Games seemed sadistic and were downright unpleasant for the most part. His camera has a penetrating stare that has a habit of focusing in on severe physical and emotional pain, and there are times where it seems like he almost enjoys watching the suffering. But I did not get that brutal glare here with Amour. The stare is still there, and there is certainly a whole lot of pain - whether it be from Anne's illness, or the damage that Anne and Georges inflict on each other. But there's such an immediate realness (I feel stupid even writing that word, but it's pretty apt here) to Haneke's work here, that seems to look deep into the eyes of its leads and sees into the heartbreak in their souls. 

In a lot of ways, this film is a masterpiece and it's most definitely my favorite of anything Haneke's ever done. It's most certainly one of the best movies of 2012. It's attention to detail and otherworldly performances push it into a stratosphere that few films about grief have ever reached. Georges was not prepared for the extra care that was required of him, but he was more than willing to pick up the slack. Eventually there comes a time in everyone's life, when they must go from wife/husband or mother/father to nurse without any warning or experience. This is a film about the pain that comes with choosing to take on that responsibility. Despite the outward nobility, it's a position that comes without much fanfare or benefit, and the end result is always going to be tragic. This is what Amour is about. Despite all of this, somehow Haneke, Trinitgnant and Riva are still able to show the devastating love that still resides below the surface.

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