Winner: Plame d’Or,Cannes Film Festival 2012,
Winner Best Actor,Best Actress,Best Director-European Film Awards 2012
Nominated: Golden Globe-Best Foreign Picture,Austrias Official Entry to the Oscars 2013
I visited my grandmother recently.She lives in Kolkata, staying in rotation with her 7 children. It was a cordial meeting, possibly our last.I have never been close to her in the way that grandchildren are.The fallout no doubt of spending my early years in an unruly joint family of 20 packed into a 3 bedroom apartment.She is over 80 years old.My grandfather passed away 5 years ago when I was in Africa.She says she is counting her days and wants to pass away as painlessly as possible.
I am always struck by old people, it’s an old preoccupation of mine, I try desperately to project myself into their brains, to understand how they are feeling, how they look back at life and what kind of world view they have.Above all,what to them, is the meaning of life.These questions in my hands do not yield significant insights, yet I continue to probe and extrapolate.However, when a person of the towering intelligence of Michael Haneke puts his mind to it and applies his scorching vision the result is a true contemporary masterpiece called Amour.
He gives us a portrait of old age that I am certain Bergman would have approved of, it was in Wild Strawberries that he found his voice as an auteur par excellence. That film was about an old man looking back at life en route to be facilitated for his achievements. Here we have an old couple living in a well-appointed Paris apartment. Their friends have started dying, its one of the worst things about being old, attending the funerals of your friends.Its clearly no fun as George observes,but we must go, so as not to be lonely in our own death.He lives with his wife Anne, also a music teacher like him, they have a comfortable life, their daughter Eva lives with her British pianist husband Geoff, mostly in London.The grandkids are likely to pursue at least a moderately successful career in music. This looks like a charmed existence.
As the film opens, we are standing on stage looking at an audience settling in to listen to a piano recital.We do not see the pianist, just the audience.Our protagonists are seated among them, we don’t know them yet. It’s Haneke’s shorthand for making a statement that despite all our glorious individuality we are but a single specimen of the human species, perishable in the end.They make their way home basking in the glory of a superlative performance by Alexander Thraud ,a famed French pianist, who plays himself in this film, who was Anne’s pupil once.When they reach home they find that their apartment has been burgled, George makes light of the incident, saying they should not fuss and enjoy the remainder of the evening, and he tells Anne that she was looking beautiful.All in a single shot.
This constitutes the brief first act of the film which points to a life well lived, of the presence of love, the absence of acrimony,the high probability of relative success that comes with hard work, and above all a state of grace in the true Christian sense.But they are not religious people, they worship only at the alter of the sublime beauty of music.
The next morning, while having breakfast Anne switches-off suddenly.George is a trifle annoyed, he quickly understands that something is amiss, wets a kitchen towel and dabs at her forehead.She does not come around.He goes into his bedroom and begins to get dressed in order to get help.The tap in the kitchen sink has been left running, supplying us with an ominous soundtrack.Usually running water provides tranquillity, Haneke finds alarm here.Suddenly the sound stops and George stops changing.He goes back to the kitchen to find Anne has turned the tap off.But she does not remember a thing.She pours tea, but not into the cup.Not once but twice.
Their life has fallen out of grace.They are now at the mercy of nature and its brutal forces.
We watch with growing discomfort as Anne’s health fails.In its portrayal of dementia and paralysis in old age the film is relentless.Nature as a torturer cannot be rivaled by the most extreme sociopath.Anne gets operated, it’s an easy operation, the doctors said, but it’s not a success. George tells his daughter Eva wearily,”the 55 failure rate”. Hanekes world is probabilistic, this statistic and its implications make that case in precisely four words.
The prodigal pupil comes home to visit.Alexander is shocked to see his teacher paralyzed, she does not want to discuss her health, the time can be better spent enjoying his surprise visit. She makes a request, asking him to play one of Beethoven’s Bagatelles in G minor, as he once did from memory at the age of 12, in a display of childish arrogance.He has not played the piece in a long time but she presses him to try.He does.The next 60 seconds show him walk up to the piano, find the sweet spot for his stool, check if the piano is tuned and start to play the piece flawlessly. Amour does not linger on this beautiful moment, emphasizing that it’s an aberration in the hell that their life has become.
We see Ann wetting herself in bed, the indignity of adult diapers, the tactless cruelty of nurses that attend to her and being bathed by George tenderly and then by the nurse professionally while she moans in pain.All through Anne’s suffering George continues to be her primary caregiver, he does not have time for much else left.It’s his and only his burden to bear and the less he wallows in self-pity the more time he will have to do the right thing.There are moments of tenderness and moments of frustration, even cruelty.His daughter visits, played by the insanely talented Isabelle Huppert, she is Hanekes muse, here she gives a pitch perfect performance as only she can.
George prepares himself, his daughter and us for the inevitable.But we are never adequately prepared for life, or for that matter, Haneke’s absolutely stunning end. There are two intriguing scenes involving a pigeon. We must assume its the same one, its important.If Au Hazard Balthazar was pure cinema in its entirety these two pigeon scenes supply us with a much more concise distillation of the concept of pure cinema.The animal here is a force of nature as well as subjected to it.The fate of the pigeon at the hands of George is a neat “parable meets fable” for the manifest randomness of Life and how we animals deal with it.
The action apart from the three short scenes in the beginning happens entirely inside the apartment.The film was shot in digital by ace cinematographer Darius Khondji using lighting which is appears natural and unglamorous.The editing is merciless, holding shots when we want to look away and cutting the softer stuff clinically.The soundtrack is astonishingly spare, composed entirely of natural sounds, the sound of the piano is heard only live and there is a complete absence of a background score.This is another Haneke trademark, cinema of this calibre is set to the music of our emotional resonance with it. The meticulous arrangement of objects in the apartment, both banal and beautiful add to the mis en scene which continuously engages us in a dialogue with this film, every second of its 127 minutes of runtime.Amour meaning love, in its stressing of the cruelty and inevitability of death points us back in the direction of life and how good it can be if lived in the pursuit of our passions and the company of people who love us.
Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant give us two singular performances that work like two intricately carved sides of a rare coin.When they appear first on-screen they are part of the audience in the concert scene, one of the lesser rewards of a second viewing is locating them in the crowd and observing them closely. They come out of semi-retirement for this film but as is evident from what they do here they never stopped perfecting their art.
Michael Haneke is one of the foremost auteurs working in the world today and will no doubt join the pantheon of all time greats.He has made films like Cache, The Piano Teacher, Funny Games (exactly the same film twice!) and most recently the beguiling The White Ribbon.His choice of subjects is always very deliberate, his pet themes being the underlying violence in our lives and the fascination of the audience to consume torture as a filmed commodity.He gives us films maddeningly open to interpretation and allows us to walk away with our version.The action on-screen is a cue for our conscience to talk to us. Haneke has made films which are so icy in tone they can burn us with their touch.In Amour he opens the window and allows in some sunshine.
This time the light can truly illuminate our soul.
#Amour is currently playing in Singapore.
Tags: assisted suicide, cannes, christianity, death, dying, existentialism, france, grace, Isabelle Huppert, meaning of life, Michael Haneke, mis en scene, music, oscars, parenting, paris, philosophy, Piano, Plame d'or, pure cinema, relationships, singapore, spirituality, suicide, teaching, voyeurism, world cinema