Amour by Michael Haneke

by Simon Collings

Michael Haneke’s film Amour, winner of a Golden Globe last night and the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, deals with troubling issues many of us will face. We may think we can imagine what ageing and illness will be like, and what caring for someone in terminal decline will demand from us. But we can’t. When we get there it will be something we haven’t encountered before. We will cope day by day, hour by hour. The indignity, the intimacy, the stress will test our relationships with those we are closest to.

In Haneke’s film, this is the fate of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a talented pianist and music teacher and her husband George (Jean-Louis Trintignant). She is part-paralysed by a stroke. She begs George not to have her hospitalized or sent to a nursing home. He tries to care for her with the aid of a nurse. Anne suffers another stroke and becomes more incapable, barely able to speak, incontinent and distressed. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) visits several times from London but is unable to cope with the enormity of what is happening. She wants it all to stop and can’t see beyond her own needs.

There are many moving moments in the film. Anne has periods of respite, of awareness and recognition. George, himself old and infirm, struggles to support and comfort her. A second nurse is hired but discharged because of her cruelty. Other people help, like the concierge, but all seem to expect a tip.

The situation is explored at length. The film is over two hours long. Moral and social issues, as in other films by Haneke, are raised and left unanswered. Music which once filled the couple’s lives with meaning no longer consoles. What use art? In the end George cannot go on. After Anne dies he dresses her in an evening gown, strews the bed with flowers, tapes up the room. The discovery of her decaying remains by members of the fire brigade, who force entry into the flat, is how the film opens.

What happens to George is less clear – and is the only disappointment in what is otherwise a serious and moving film. He appears to go on living in the flat after Anne’s death but he is lost. He ignores the telephone, writes letters to his wife, sleeps in disorder in the spare room. One assumes George also dies, that he too is found in the flat, but this is never clear. The shift into dream imagery in the final sequences, with their suggestions of an afterlife, jars with the clear eyed and subtle observation which characterised the rest of the film.

But don’t let this put you off seeing it. Riva and Trintignant are superb. Having watched my mother struggle with rheumatism and incontinence, and seen my father care for her, I recognised much in this film, including my own felt need to have my parents there ‘always.’ Getting old is no fun, my parent’s generation tell me. Amour is bleak testimony to this. But it is also a testimony to love.