Monday, November 12, 2012

‘Amour’ (2012) directed by Michael Haneke, 11th November 2012

‘Amour’ is designed to fill audiences with a deep, existential misery.  It’s a film that takes a clinical, unflinching look at something that is both utterly horrifying and near universal.    Haneke tells us the story of Georges and Anne, an octogenarian couple living a happy, well off life in Paris.  They’re both involved in classical music and one of Anne’s students is becoming a big success.  Yes, life is good.  But then Anne’s brain explodes.  

Suffering a series of increasingly debilitating strokes, Georges must cope with the responsibility of caring for her as her personality is systematically destroyed and her body deteriorates into an unresponsive, paralysed prison. 

Material like this sounds deceptively like daytime hankie movie stuff, classic tearjerker fare.  As I was leaving the cinema afterwards, many of the audience were had red eyes and some looked shaken and disturbed by what they'd seen.  If all you want to do is make people cry, then in film this isn't particularly difficult. But there’s much more to this film than simply making people miserable.  'Amour' tells a compact, personal story, but is clearly concerned with big questions.  What are the consequences of love?  What responsibilities do we have to those we love?  

The film opens with a statement of intent: the Fire Department break down an apartment door, a man holds his nose and recoils in disgust at the smell from within. In the bedroom they find the decomposing body of an old woman, surrounded by rotting flowers.  The camera holds the shot just long enough for the image to sear itself into our minds, but quickly enough that we can’t quite analyse it.  From the off, Haneke impresses upon us that this film is not going to have a happy ending.  It also lets us know that this film is not plot-driven, we already know the ending, it’s the process that we should focus on.

Our leads, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, are both astonishingly effective.  Initially it’s a bit of a shock having to deal with such elderly main characters, the vast majority of cinema preferring to gloss over the aging process or present us with a procession of conventionally attractive young people.  The film repeatedly shows us close-ups of their faces, and the high definition digital photography allows us to savour every crinkled feature of their faces.  I found it especially jarring; I’ve recently been watching films from the 1960s, so I’m familiar with these actors in the prime of their youth, the jump from seeing Riva in ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ to ‘Amour’ makes aging seem like the cruellest torture of all. 

Both actors emphasise every physical discomfort they endure.  Georges shuffles around the apartment arthritically and struggles to bend over and stand up.  It’s made somehow more tragic that he has to play the ‘strong’ one here, moving and manipulating his wife around when he himself is clearly becoming increasingly decrepit.  But this discomfort pales in comparison to Riva’s Anne.  She goes from a vivacious elderly woman, still with a hint of the panache she once possessed to a twisted, ruined wreck of a person who can only hoarsely gasp the word “hurts” over and over again.  Throughout the film she graphically embodies a painful destruction of the self: an inexorable loss of dignity as her cultured mind turns to mush and she pisses and shits herself into a second infanthood. 

Both Trintignant and Riva give ego free, brave and emotionally naked performances.  Even through the most miserable events the characters never lapse into maudlin sentiment or overblown hysterics; they take the horror that is meted out to them with as much dignity and composure as they can muster.  This makes the situation that much more tragic.  Georges in particular is a calm and pragmatic on the surface, but we can see the cracks beginning to form due to the massive internal turmoil going on just underneath the surface.  Meanwhile, Anna knows her time is up and that things are only going to get worse and  barely suppresses her rage at a universe that would inflict a torture like this.  We see her frustration boil over a few times, her loss of composure and surrender to emotions prefiguring the infantile ego driven creature she is destined to become.

The way this film shows the human body turning against itself reminded me of Cronenbergian body horror.  The transformation of the flesh and the subsequent effects on the mind infuse this film, on many levels it works as a kind of bizarrely down to earth horror film.  Haneke lingers on shots of Anne’s body, her pale spaghetti thin legs being futilely massaged, the way her paralysed hand twists into a reptilian claw pressed tightly against her chest, her dried out, bruised, curled up lips and eventually a shot of her being showered that seems to linger cruelly and coldly in a way that eats into the audience’s conscience.  Haneke is showing us things we don’t want to look at, but we can’t look away.

But the debilitating effects of the strokes on Anne are just a sped up microcosm of the ageing process as a whole.  And that is the true horror of ‘Amour’, this is going to happen to us.  In the second shot of the film we see an audience taking their seats in a theatre.  Haneke shoots from the stage, so the screen becomes a mirror of us.  What he’s telling us, quite directly, is that this is you.  Ageing is a distant horror to most of us, something silently grinding away in the backdrop of our lives.  On those we love it’s barely perceptible, a few grey hairs here, a wrinkle there: something that happens in geological time.  Anne’s strokes have such a dramatic physical effect on her that she ages ridiculously fast.  Late in the film we get a quick flashback to her near the beginning and she's barely recognisable as the same person.  This is the true horror of the film, the intangible made real, the acceleration of the chronic, years compressed into the space of a few months.  Imagine waking one morning up in a ruined, useless body knowing that your mind is soon to follow.

The film suffocates you not only with a sense of time slipping away, but also with its use of the environment.  Aside from a few early scenes, the entire film takes place within the couple’s apartment, which consists of a hall, a living room, a bedroom and a kitchen.  We quickly learn the geography of the place, and the closed doors and wooden floor eventually begin to feel claustrophobic and tomblike.  The apartment is static and unchanging , and although the outside world isn’t shut out, it’s viewed through the blur of lace curtains, a distant, ghostly world.  When some life does intrude upon this still world it seems wildly out of place, a pigeon that’s pecking around in the hall might as well be a surreal alien invader.  When the couple's daughter visits she comes across as an interloper in a world she can't possibly comprehend.  There's a moment where she says to her father "we have to take things seriously now", which showcases exactly how out of her depth she is.

Haneke shoots this environment in long, held, tightly focussed shots.  There are several long scenes of dialogue that’s shown in one long unmoving shot.  During these the eye can’t help but wander, examining the neatly placed ornaments, the tasteful art, the way the chairs have just the right amount of wear to them.  This precision and orderliness in the surroundings of these characters seems to become a bit of a sick joke when contrasted with how scarily indecipherable Anne becomes towards the end.  The bourgeois, tasteful palace becomes a prison filled with echoing moans of pain and torment.

So where does the film stand on love?  When we meet our characters they’re locked into a routine of companionship, two people accustomed to each other rather than affectionate.  Anne’s condition forces them to become more intimate with each other, but the positions they find themselves in are cruel parodies of passion.  When Georges moves Anne from her wheelchair they look like dancing lovers about to kiss, when he’s working her body through exercises there are echoes of foreplay as she grimaces and groans, her pain a dark mirror of pleasure.  As the condition progresses Georges must clean her after she uses the toilet and we reflect that this is probably the first time he’s been between her legs in years.

I think the film tries to show both the positive and negative sides of devotion to a significant other.  Georges' single-mindedness in caring for his wife at home both respects her wishes and takes a terrible toll on his psyche.  He respects his wife's wishes to the end.  But the neverending misery of the situation numbs him and he begins a transformation.  He stares too long into the abyss, and the abyss stares right back at him, corroding his soul.  Is he acting out of love, or a sense of misguided duty?  Eventually what's left of his wife drags him down, a brave man being pulled under the water by the weight of the drowned corpse he's futilely trying to save.

Not exactly kittens and buttercups then.  This is a great film: it's intelligently directed, has two outstanding performances and conducts itself with both sensitivity and honesty.  It shows the plight of people left to care for sick relatives and the ways in which our bodies and mind can be snatched from us by capricious fate.  It's a hard film to recommend, but not because there's any question of its quality, but because it's such an effective misery machine.  

'Amour' is on general release from 16th November 2012

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