Tuesday 13 November 2012

Amour (2012) - Michael Haneke

The best way to describe Amour, the Palme d’or winning film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival from Austrian director Michael Haneke, is like the first twenty-minutes of Up in slow-motion.  It’s a film that forces the audience to face up to death, as it details the struggles of an elderly couple coping with the aftermath of a stroke.  Death is a sad inevitability of life and, just as the couple have accepted this, so must the audience.  It’s an incredibly powerful piece of filmmaking, its constant feeling of dread and shocking climax likely to have a profound effect on the viewer.

The slow pace is intentional. The narrative takes place almost exclusively in the isolated confines of the couple’s flat.  Over the course of the film, we see Anne’s (Emmanuelle Riva) condition deteriorate, struggling to walk, talk, eat and, eventually, communicate at all, whilst husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) strives to ease her suffering.  The camera is mostly still, often lingering in space to mirror Anne’s waning grip on reality, and the rhythm of the editing is slow, combining to reflect the couple’s slow pace of life and their difficulties with day-to-day activities.

What’s most touching is the utter normality of their relationship.  After years of marriage, Anne and Georges certainly know how to playfully chide one another, with plenty of comic moments in the script to relieve the intensity of emotion.  The two central performances are outstanding and brave (from Riva especially), creating two believable characters who exude warmth and compassion.  Yet this is not an overtly sentimental film.  There’s a sense of detachment that ensures this remains a human story.  It’s for this reason that the film is so emotionally powerful - not only does the audience fall in love with the couple, but our expectations are confounded by the film’s horrific climax.  This is a story that could affect any one of us.  An early scene in the concert hall has the camera focused on the audience and not the performance, creating a mirror image where the cinema audience could easily be picturing themselves in the future.

Music, or the lack of, also plays an important part.  The only music used is diagetic piano music, which alone adds a sense of melancholia, but the significance goes further.  Anne used to be a piano teacher, but due to her condition is no longer able to play.  As such, music is always interrupted (either within the narrative, or through editing), reflecting the sudden loss of her hobby.  In fact, there is very little sound or dialogue within the film, the action taking place in almost perpetual deathly silence, leaving the characters and the audience hollow and empty – a feeling that prevails to the end of the final credits.

Due to the heightened emotion, it’s hard to recommend Amour.  On the one hand, this is a beautiful and moving film that bravely addresses a universal inevitability head on, with terrific central performances.  It’s easy to see why it won the Palme d’or and it could easily go on to further award success.  On the other, this is an intense and immensely tragic experience that frightens as equally as it inspires.


Watch: Amour sees general release on 16th November.