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Till death us do part

Helene Wczesniak

Michael Haneke
Canal+, France 3 Cinema, Wega Film
16 November
2012 (UK)






Don’t let the title fool you. Amour, Michael Haneke’s latest film after his critically acclaimed The White Ribbon (Das wei√üe Band, 2009), presents the director at his best: a precise and unforgiving observer of society and human relationships—precise to a degree that might even resemble cruelty.

After confronting his viewers with the terrors of education in pre-Nazi Germany in The White Ribbon and addressing the question of how to come to terms with the Algerian War in Caché (2005), the Franco-Austrian film-maker now turns to a more obvious topic: ageing, suffering, and death.

We meet Georges and Anne, the film’s main characters, in what seems to be the autumn of their lives. The couple, both retired music professors, enjoy the active life of the elderly intellectual bourgeoisie. Soon after, Anne is diagnosed with a narrowed cervical artery and suffers from her first stroke. Georges decides to take care of his hemiparetic wife at home, and this is when, within the confined walls of their Parisian apartment, the chamber play between Georges and Anne develops.

Haneke does not palliate the horrors of Anne’s decaying physical (and mental) state, which grows worse after she suffers from a second stroke. Nevertheless, the confrontation with her illness remains respectful throughout the film. However painful the display of Anne’s helplessness might be, the viewer does not feel like an impious voyeur or intruder. The camera succeeds in preserving Anne’s dignity. What also makes the story bearable is the feeling of deep love between Georges and Anne, an affection that even drips and diapers cannot impair. The performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are simply extraordinary. Both octogenarian actors put everything into their roles and spare neither the viewers nor themselves.

Music serves as the life-affirming counterpart to thanatos throughout the film, and Haneke’s choice here is telling. Franz Schubert’s Four Impromptus D. 899 (Op. 90) form a recurrent musical motif—a late work the Austrian composer wrote shortly before his death while suffering from serious illness, the beauty and depth of which is touching. The same is true for painting in the film: an unexpected montage of landscape paintings we are later able to recognise among the apartment’s furniture allows for a short moment of solace.

In short: Amour is an important film at a time when death and suffering in old age have been excluded from the public discourse almost completely. It is a respectful and sensitive account of the beauties and horrors of human life, the latter of which we probably ignore too often. After being awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this summer, Amour was recently approved as Austria’s entry for the Academy Awards in 2013. Viel Glück, Michael Haneke.

Helene Wczesniak is reading for an MPhil in Modern Languages at Wadham College, Oxford.