SFF: Amour – Michael Haneke and the question of the end.

I saw Amour last night at the Sydney Film Festival and I am still wrapped up in its world. What a delicate, beautifully made film – one completely deserving its accolades and applause.  There is little to say that hasn’t already been said about this film – and it isn’t due for release till after September 30.  It’s a remarkably intelligent film using a contemporary theme (dealing with old age and the 0n-set of dementia) that is familiar to those interested in contemporary cinema, however this time the journey into the depths of this complex problem is unflinching and painstakingly revealed.

Amour opens with the fire department crashing in on the locked and barricaded apartment. We are faced with an image that will set the scene for the rest of the film. But also, it is a metaphor for our own bursting in on the lives of these people. Locks and privacy are an important theme in the film. The complex competition of desire to keep life as it was, to freeze it in a perfect moment in time, posited against an impending reality. But also, the right to privacy and coming to face with the things that really become most important at the end of one’s life. Gone are the images of the family around the stoic dying creatures bed we used to see in films – a fetishised  totemic vision of the elderly always seen through the eyes of the young. This couple – so deeply in love – want privacy to carry out their ageing without the drudgery, needs and accusations surrounding sadness.  Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) spends a large part of the film locking people out, carefully selecting what people can see, barricading himself behind a wall of fear and longing. Only a pigeon keeps getting into the apartment. George has to keep tossing it out a window, but somehow the pigeon will keep getting through every obstacle they out up against the outside world.

Except for the next scene where we see the couple watching a successful concert by one of Anne’s (Emanuelle Riva) pupils (only the audience is shown) and the trip home from this concert on the bus, the rest of Amour will be shot in the academically lavish apartment of Georges and Anne. There will be occasional visits by their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) her way-ward husband, a string of helpers, and the pupil from the opening concert Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud). The visits are sparse and not particularly welcomed by the older couple who want to be left in peace to deal with what is happening to them.

And what is happening, is the complexities of growing older and approaching death. Right from the start the wonderful acting and the intimacy of the apartment allow us access to what seems to be the inner most thoughts of the these characters.  The dialogue that passes between them is laced with a familiarity that somehow Haneke, Trintignant and Riva reveal to us. This is a couple beautifully and powerfully in love, and although (from memory) the word love never passes between them, the passion they share and have shared fills the apartment with a potency that can almost be touched. AS Eva said on one of her visits “I used to listen as a child to you both making love and it always filled me with a sense of security.” Except for that line by Eva, and one at the start when Georges tells Anne that he thinks she looks beautiful, the love is not revealed in the words but in the spaces between the words miraculously brought to life by these two brilliant actors.

The day after the concert, Anne and Georges are sitting at breakfast.  Anne prepares Georges egg, he complains there is no salt but Anne sits still, frozen in position. Georges stands, gets himself the salt, and then speaks, notices Anne has not moved, tries to get her attention, walks to the sink, runs water, dampens a cloth, applies it to her forehead and neck with no response from Anne. He moves to the bedroom and is dressing when he hears the tap being turned off in the kitchen.  He walks back in to find Anne sitting at the table again, in full control of her faculties admonishing him for leaving the tap on. Georges is horrified to find his wife has no recollection of what just happened to her. Anne is horrified to find that Georges imagined the entire scene.  We watch – breathless – as the reality of their age and situation dawns on them both at the breakfast table and they realise they are coming to the end of their life.

Anne has had a mini stroke that will be the first in a series that will leave her more and more debilitated as the film progresses. Georges, getting more frail each day himself and starting to face aspects of his own dementia, takes on the primary care of his wife.  The scenes of his care are some of the more complex and difficult to watch. Haneke leaves the camera rolling as we watch minute after minute of the excruciating time it takes to get Anne into her wheelchair or complete her daily therapy.  Georges continues to chat and starts to tell Anne stories from his youth that previously he had forgotten as we are left to witness the true meaning of love and the power of two lives coming to an end in the arms of each other.

Still, despite the overwhelming love the two have for each other, sitting just slightly below the surface are the tensions and petty irritations that occur between two people. Where the love occurs between the words, the problems of the relationship exist under the words. Every conversation is laced with doubles meanings, every sigh meant to oppress, every defiant stare treated like a victory won. These people may love each other, but they are still human and they still deal with the petty irritations of being human. A predominant theme in their conversation is to apologise for their own pettiness, something they have to do several times a day.

I’ve painted a sad and rather gloomy portrait here, but Amour (strangely) is anything but. The dialogue is funny and the couple have a lot of fun between them at the expense of the oddities of others I found myself laughing a lot in this film, despite the tension and the overriding darkness. We know from the opening scene that Anne will die – what we don’t know is why she was found alone.

This is an exquisite film, completely deserving of all the fuss and carry-on around it. Highly recommended.

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