Michael Haneke’s Palm d’Or winning Amour opens with the discovery of a body, an elderly woman’s, sealed into what appears to be an abandoned but well maintained Parisian apartment. It’s a standard device for certain genres of film – the murder mystery or the gritty crime drama – but a few brief scenes later it’s clear that not only is Amour neither of those, but that Haneke has a supreme, if subtle, confidence and that we will not be in for an easy ride.
The body’s discovery is a flash forward. The following scenes introduce us to Anne and George, retired music teachers, now apparently in their 70s or 80s. By the third scene Anne has suffered a stroke. Over breakfast she stops talking almost mid sentence, she appears to be frozen. George tries to revive her her with a damp cloth, fails, in his panic he leaves a tap running as he heads out of the apartment to find help. In the hallway he is putting on his coat when he is interrupted by the sound – or lack there of – of the the tap being turned off. Anne is moving again.
The next scene reveals that Anne has had surgery, and it has not gone as well as could be hoped for. She makes George promise he will never take her back to hospital. Across these three described scenes the entire plot of the film is laid out in front of the audience, and we have been watching for less than ten minutes. We know the inevitable is coming, we can even make a good guess at the nature of its arrival.
Under a lesser director this set up would be an almost pandering device. Under a lesser director we would be in for an overly sentimental journey – one tainted in emotional blackmail and smothered by a heartstring-tugging soundtrack – Amour has no soundtrack – the only music we hear is played on the piano or from CDs, and sometimes it is too painful for us to hear in full, and is instead cut short. It is music that tugs at the character’s heartstrings, and ours only by proxy. Under a lesser director the camera and cast never leaving the confines of the couple’s apartment would be lazily claustrophobic, but instead it at times feels secure, homely, loving. Under a lesser director there would be nothing but an inevitable descent into Anne’s decline, but somehow Haneke gives us so much more, rejecting sentimentality and remorse for realism and human nature.
Of course praise must be piled also on Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, whose performances in the leading roles are staggering in their subtle, effortless accomplishment, but really Haneke’s direction and writing are the stars of this film. He has ultimate mastery over the flow of information, providing exposition and introducing outside characters in the most elegant of ways. By the end our initial fears have come true – it is by no means an easy ride – but it is a beautiful, thoughtful and enriching one; a journey through sadness, memories, trust, dignity – and above all – love. It is a fantastic accomplishment.
This review was based on a press screening at the Watershed, Bristol. The movie is playing there – and nationwide – from Friday 16th November.