Following the success of The White Ribbon (2009), Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or-winning film, it is no great surprise that his recent film Amour was awarded the same honour at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Amour challenges the viewer to step away from mainstream film narratives and instead enter a much more rewarding, albeit demanding, introspective study into what makes us human. It is little wonder that Haneke’s films are often criticised as being pretentious. Yet Haneke’s philosophical approach of analysing the human condition within film, and the methods he uses to achieve this effect, are so distinctive that it raises him to the status of an auteur — something which is no easy feat.
Amour tells the story of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly couple enduring the greatest challenge of their marriage. After suffering a stroke, followed by unsuccessful surgery to prevent the risk of further strokes, Anne returns home to await her impending decline. Fearful of her fate, she demands a promise from her husband that he will not hospitalise her again. Both characters, who are deeply introverted yet fully dependant on each other, have isolated themselves from the outside world. In fact, almost the entire film is set in their apartment, which gazes down at the streets of Paris below. Visits from nurses, Anne’s former piano student (Alexandre Tharaud, appearing as himself), and their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), represent the couple’s only external contacts. However, even these visits are unwelcome, for they appear to the couple as invasions into their private home. Likewise, it seems to have been Haneke’s intention for the viewers to begin feeling as if they, like guilty voyeurs, were also invading the couple’s lives. Thus, viewing Amour becomes a deeply personal experience. Not only is the viewer’s concept of home questioned, but the idea of what constitutes love and marriage is laid bare.
As in his previous films, Haneke refrains from using a musical score; any music heard in the film comes from a direct source (e.g. a radio or a piano being played by a character). Thus, viewers are not manipulated into thinking about how they should react to what is taking place on the screen. This forces an interaction with the image on a much more personal level, bringing a deep, introspective silence to the film whilst the volume of both internal and external sounds of suffering is raised to a discomforting pitch. Likewise, Haneke’s long takes force the viewer to scrutinise each scene and to slowly accept the fate of the couple. The film is not heart-warming; it is heart-wrenching. It is stunningly beautiful, yet its expression of beauty is moulded from the tenderest areas of life. Such beauty brings the viewer into a state of emotional exhaustion.
The silent end credits pose questions which the viewers must ask only unto themselves, yet are answered solely by an existential hush, providing an uneasy sense of vulnerability within the darkened theatre. But, are our hearts not vulnerable things? And do we not distract ourselves from thinking and trembling about the approach of death? To willingly enter the cinema and view Amour, we challenge ourselves to peer beyond the façade of the commonplace and to confront those things which truly give meaning to our existence. In my opinion, Haneke’s Amour does exactly what it set out to do.