by Allan Fish
(France 2012 127m) DVD1/2
Playing Beethoven’s Bagatelle
p Margaret Ménégoz d/w Michael Haneke ph Darius Khondji ed Monika Willi, Nadine Muse art Jean-Vincent Puzos, Suzanne Haneke
Jean-Louis Trintignant (Georges), Emmanuelle Riva (Anne), Isabelle Huppert (Eva), Alexandre Tharaud (Alexandre), William Shimell (Geoff), Ramon Agirre (concierge),
It was not going to be easy viewing. Amour isn’t easy viewing for anyone, but as I type I have a dear loved one suffering from the onset of dementia. I’ve also lived with suicide in my time, for a period it was my good companion. But despite my empathy on many levels watching it could never be as hard as making it was for Haneke, who himself had lost a loved one to suicide.
After the discovery of a body in an apartment laid out on a bed as if for a funeral, we are then taken back a little period, only a few months or so, to an evening concert at the Théâtre Champes Elysées. An elderly couple take their seat in the fourth row and then join the applause as the pianist comes on stage behind the camera. We see them meeting the pianist afterwards and then going home. He takes a nightcap. They go to bed. We next see them round the breakfast table the next morning. They’re talking when all of a sudden the wife, Anne, literally stops, as if in a trance. Nothing her husband Georges can do can snap her out of it. Then when he’s about to go for help, she snaps out of it and refuses to believe anything had happened.
It’s a painful sequence because we know, at that instant, that it’s all downhill from here. As it happens her ‘incident’ is down to a carotid artery block which they operate on, only for it to fail and leave her half paralysed. On coming out of hospital, Anne presses Georges into promising she’ll never have to go back there, but she has a stroke which puts her into a motorised wheelchair, and then another which leaves her bedridden and unable to speak sense.
What gives the film its greatest dimension, both magically and painfully so, is the baggage the actors bring with them. Both had appeared in Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy in their sixties, but both went back much further; Riva to Resnais’ Hiroshima (and another Amour) and Franju’s Thérèse Desqueyroux and Trintigant to Chabrol, Bertolucci, Lelouch, Rohmer, Robbe-Grillet, Costa-Gavras, and further still, to Vadim and Zurlini. His amours included Aimée, Bardot, Rossi Drago, Audran, Sanda and others, yet never Riva. They’d missed each other in passing, and both were effectively in semi-retirement. Here they are laid bare, in Riva’s case quite literally in a scene where she has to be washed by a nurse. Watching them, is not only like watching their love fade away into the night but like watching the great European cinema of the past finally give in to modernity. Huppert is there, a link to the generation after theirs, but is she not there as much to reference Haneke’s earlier The Piano Teacher, for indeed that was Anne’s profession prior to retirement and it’s one of her ex-pupils whose concert they go to.
What sticks in the mind most of all, however, are the little almost imperceptible sequences that evoke a world of affection between the two. Of Georges telling Anne as they go to bed “did I mention you looked very pretty tonight?” Or of the semi-paralysed Anne thanking Georges for helping her into bed with a simple “merci, chéri.” Or of one of the most heart-rending sequences of all, where we see Anne sat at her piano playing, only for a reverse shot to shatter the illusion; Georges is imagining her there and the music we hear is merely from a CD, which he stops. Or is it…for in the final act one senses perhaps a sense of the delusionary in Georges; his visions of the now deceased Anne. As for her death scene, I won’t spoil that, but one is left in such an emotional tumult as to be both soul-destroying and epiphanal simultaneously. Both Trintignant and Riva are truly extraordinary, but so is Haneke’s self-exorcism of a film. In the end, we achieve a sense of inner peace and it’s like…it’s like playing John Dowland at the North Pole.