Even though Amour has been released internationally under its French name, it is still a film titled Love. While many films often have the word ‘love’ in the title, few filmmakers are as bold (or perhaps foolish) to have that loaded word used as the title for their film. This is probably because most films about love are really about romance or other idealised variations about what love is. Few films really explore the question of what it means to love, not necessarily because of the complexity that is potentially involved, but because of the challenge required to express an understanding of love at its purest. Filmmaker Michael Haneke has approached the task by depicting the slow decline of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly woman living in Paris whose husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) looks after her as her body and then mind start to fail. The result is a triumph for Haneke and a deeply beautiful film.
As a filmmaker renowned for his ability to provoke, challenge and confront audiences with their own hypocrisy, Haneke may not seem like an obvious choice to make a film about love. However, he is perfect because of his ability to remove all traces of sentimentality and romantic notions of love that popular culture has trained audiences to believe in. So instead of young lovers discovering that they are one another’s soul mates, we see an elderly couple whose companionship has long moved on from the moment where most romance films end. Never before has Haneke’s highly formal and almost didactic approach to representing human behaviour so clearly expose him as a humanist at heart.
The film opens with Haneke asserting that the audience are voyeurs, witnesses to a private space and occupying an ethically ambiguous position. It is a favourite technique of Haneke’s and here it is established with a flashforward of the authorities bursting into Anne and Georges’s apartment; literally bursting into the space of the film in the very first frame. The film then goes back in time to show Anne and Georges enjoying a live music concert (we later learn the performer was once a student of Anne’s) before taking a train home together. As they enter their apartment they talk about somebody having broken in and how this concerns them. It is not only a typically Hanekesque moment for both recalling the flashforward and providing a narrative red herring, but it serves as a metaphor for the audience having ‘broken in’ to their lives. Later death becomes the intruder in their home. A pair of scenes involving a pigeon serves a similar purpose as it represents an unwanted visitor and also serves as a calculated distraction from other events. Eventually the pigeon exists to express the kindness that ultimately characterises the film.
Through all the difficult scenes of Anne’s decline and Georges’s frustration, kindness pervades. Even Haneke is kind towards the various supporting characters who commit acts of insensitivity to differing degrees; suggesting they have good intentions without full comprehension of the outcomes. For example, Anne’s former student Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud) unwittingly comes across as overly dramatic in how he expresses his sympathy, leaving Anne unable to listen to his music anymore. Likewise their daughter Eve (Isabelle Huppert) seems irrational compared to her parents, but Haneke shows us that she has not been able to get accustomed to what is happening to her mother due to other parts of her life demanding her attention.
Finally there is the kindness and affection between Anne and Georges that is initially shown through their daily domestic interaction and later through the scenes of Georges looking after Anne. Both of them struggle with the fact that what is happening to Anne is robbing her of her dignity. The way the pair attempts to make the situation more bearable for the other, often against the wishes of each other, is a significant part of what makes Amour a film of such integrity. The other strength is Haneke’s meticulous framing and camera position so that the camera only ever gets as close to the characters as it needs to, rather than opting for indulgent close-ups at every opportunity to elicit easy sentiment. Amour becomes the opposite of the film that Georges saw as a child and describes to Anne, which was manipulative and completely forgettable, but shamefully left him sad beyond belief afterwards without registering its power at the time. Amour is anything but manipulative or forgettable, but its emotional power is similarly not fully felt until the final credits are rolling.
Unlike the film Georges saw, Amour is not a film to feel ashamed about for having been moved by it. It is distinctively a Haneke film and yet its formal elements and moments of self-awareness seem designed to reward the viewer rather than punish them. By stripping back any aspects of film style or narrative that feel false or constructed, Haneke ensures that everything that happens between Anne and Georges is an act of intense kindness and personal sacrifice shared by people who love each other unconditionally. The scenario is upsetting, but the execution is genuine and pure, making Amour a film of heartbreaking beauty and Haneke’s masterpiece.
Great review of a great film!
Once again, you’ve written a fine review that reveals to us in many dimensions why this film succeeds.
I took care of my mother for a number of years; she had Parkinson’s disease complicated by a stroke, with a somewhat similar slow decline to that of the character Anne in this film.
Care-giving is one of the most intimate of callings, and Amour reveals it in details that rang very true to me. It also showed the variations in the quality of care-giving and the difference between a calling and a job. Those variations show the importance of dignity for both the person giving the care and the one cared for. As you accurately observe, the film reveals Haneke to be a humanist.
I really liked the cinematography. Many of the scenes were composed and studied. The early sequence you site with the viewer looking at the concert hall audience was one of the longest takes of recent memory. I’d forgot that Darius Kondji was also the DP for The City of Lost Children.
I was surprised and enjoyed how they paused to show the paintings that Anne and Georges had chosen for their apartment and felt sad that the link between them and their paintings might eventually be broken. Bertrand Tavernier and his DP, Bruno de Keyser did something similar nearly thirty years ago toward the end of the film A Sunday in the Country.
A film along these lines probably could not be made in the U.S. right now. Here, we shun the realities of life such as growing old and dying. At least we now have the institution of hospice which provides end of life care for those who cannot receive it from their families. My mother’s death was sudden in the sense that she was somewhat ambulatory and eating full meals one day, and then died in her sleep that night. But for many, the decline is more like Anne’s.
You observe that this film has integrity. Very, very well said.
Great review. One of the things I appreciated about the film was that it was open to various interpretations. For instance, I felt Anne could no longer listen to Alexandre’s music because the paralysis down one side of her body had robbed her of her own ability to play the piano and hearing her student was too uncomfortable a reminder of what she could no longer do.
I also found the Eve’s self-dramatising overreaction to her mother’s illness painfully realistic. My own mother recently went into hospital and my (European) father had a similarly protective/defensive reaction. Recalling Eve’s response stemmed my own reactivity at feeling excluded from the situation.
I think the symbol of the pigeon is open to multiple interpretations too. This is particularly refreshing since a bird in a confined space is usually a none-too-subtle metaphor for loss of freedom or entrapment (see: an early scene in Doubt, 2008). I agree the bird comes to represent kindness, but you could also see it as representing a side of Georges to which he is at first resentful and then comes to regard with forgiveness. Again, nice to see a symbol that alters in meaning when it is repeated, rather than being static.
Anyway, nice to read such a thoughtful and thought-provoking review.
Thank you all for the kind words. Tom and Steve, thank you for sharing your own experiences, providing extra information and expressing other ways of interpreting some of the elements of this extraordinary film. I don’t really have much more to add other than to say I really enjoyed and appreciated your insightful comments.
Thank you for your wonderful review. To me, too, the film rang so true that I was consoled to understand that my experiences when looking after my dying father were pretty universal.
For example, my father was supposed to get up and walk a bit every day, but preferred to stay in bed. I was desperate, as he would get bed sores if he didn’t get moving, and I would then be forced to put him in a frail care unit. I told him so, just as Georges tells Anne that if she does not drink the water, he will have to put her in hospital.
I also had to contend with nurses who treated my father as though he was a silly child, and not an extremely dignified person.
Eve’s behaviour reminded me forcibly of the way my sisters conducted themselves at the time. Just like Eve, one of my sisters, who always worries about money, rattled on about a new taxation system, investments, savings, etc while my father lay dying.
And my other sister told me, just like Eve did, “it can’t go on like this” – my dad should have really have been dead by now. I laughed aloud when Georges came up with his answer.
So, to me the film wasn’t gloomy at all. Its absolute understanding of the situation gave me great solace.
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