It’s pretty widely acknowledged that the golden age of foreign cinema (at least from an American perspective) was in the late fifties and early sixties when titans like Bergman, Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, and Antonioni were regularly putting out bold and original films that would later become staples of repertory theaters. It’s hard to believe we’ll ever see a braintrust that grand again, but if one were to put together a pantheon of modern international auteurs there are a number of names that would surely be on the list like Almodóvar, Kiarostami, Von Trier, and the Dardennes. Still, no one quite embodies what it means to be a European auteur quite like the Austrian born Michael Hanake, who’s been making provocative and influential films since the late eighties. Personally, I’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride going through his filmography. I disagree philosophically with, Funny Games, the film which more or less made his reputation. I also didn’t get too much out of his 2001 film, The Piano Teacher. However, he’s made a string of solid films since then like Time of the Wolf, Caché, and The White Ribbon which have more or less converted me to the pro-Haneke camp.
His latest film (his second effort in a row to win the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival) is Amour, a stark exploration of what happens to a marriage deep into old age. The film follows Georges and Anne Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, respectively), an aged French couple living in a large Parisian apartment. The two of them were once respected piano tutors but now they’re more or less happily retired. Unfortunately, Anne suffers a stroke early in the film which begins a process in which she becomes both physically and mentally debilitated. From here the film never leaves the Laurents’ apartment, which becomes increasingly tombelike as the film progresses, and the audience watches as Georges has to cope with Anne’s decline and the various indignities involved in her care.
Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are of course both veteran French actors who’ve worked with storied filmmakers like Resnais, Rohmer, Melville, Bertolucci, and Kieślowski (both actors appeared in separate installments of the Three Colors trilogy), and this could be a great capper to both amazing careers. Emmanuelle Riva clearly has the more showy and noticeable role. She convincingly conveys her character’s physical disability but that aside you can still see the lovable person who once lived beneath her decaying body. It’s a little harder to love Jean-Louis Trintignant’s work if only because much of what he’s doing is well beneath the surface because his character faces the situation that he and his wife are in with a lot of stoicism. It’s so easy to get wrapped up in these two performances that it’s easy to forget that the great Isabelle Huppert also has a nice supporting role in the film as the daughter of the two leads in which she reacts to the same situation much more openly than her father does and there’s an interesting contrast in the way the two characters deal with their grief.
I usually associate Michael Haneke with cerebral films about weighty themes that need to be sorted out, but Amour seems like a much different type of film from Haneke. I wouldn’t necessarily call it emotional, because Haneke maintains his usual dethatched and unsentimental perspective. Rather, I’d call the movie visceral. Not “visceral” in the conventional sense that the word is used to describe intense action scenes, more in the sense that you’re really wrapped up in these people’s situation and you actively feel their pain as you watch the film. In many ways it’s a film to be experienced rather than written about and it’s made all the more painful when you consider that an experience not unlike this will be in the future of anyone who doesn’t die in a quick and unexpected way.
**** out of Four