Cannes Film Festival: Michael Haneke’s Amour


80-something couple George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anna (Emmanuelle
Riva), former music teachers with one adult daughter (Isabelle
Huppert), are comfortably settled into their senescence together in a
not-small and yet claustrophobic Paris apartment. One morning at the
breakfast table, Anna goes blank — her eyes blacken, she can’t seem to
see George or hear him — and then she snaps out of it, with no apparent
knowledge of what just happened. She has a surgery with a 95 percent
success rate; she emerges a member of “that 5 percent,” paralyzed on her
right side, in need of full-time care.

Beginning with a flash-forward to the discovery of the old woman’s corpse in a sealed-off bedroom, Amour, directed by Michael Haneke (who won Cannes’ top prize in 2009 for The White Ribbon)
is a deliberate, almost unbearably tense endurance exercise tracking
what happens to George and Anna’s relationship, as Anna’s condition
deteriorates, one horrible day at a time. “There’s no reason to go on
living,” she tells her husband, early into the ordeal. “I know it can
only get worse.” She is, of course, correct — and she’s foreshadowing
the rest of the movie.

The title is literal: George’s experience — the fear he keeps in
check, his practical handling of each new challenge, his inability to
confide his feelings to anyone, his effort to protect his daughter from
what he’s going through, his quiet frustration curdled into waves of
rage culminating in two key, decisive actions — is what most of us have
to look forward to when enduring love eventually bumps up against

If you’re following Cannes attendees on Twitter, you likely know that
the idyllic spot on the French Rivera was hit by a storm today. The Amour
screening I attended was in a venue erected out of “temporary”
materials five years ago for Cannes’ 60th anniversary, which is still in
use. Throughout the film, the walls of the screening space shook and
rattled in the wind and rain. It wasn’t distracting, exactly; Amour‘s
sound design is pointedly sparse, with diegetic music in a couple of
scenes but no score, and an economy of dialogue. The most prevalent
sounds are those made by George and Anna’s bodies as they move, usually
excruciatingly slowly, through the hardwood-floored apartment — until
Anna’s facilities devolve to the point where the only way she can
communicate is by filling the air with a syncopated moan. The persistent
chill imparted by the external conditions acted in harmony with the
film’s bitterly minimalist aesthetics. It was an unforgettable
experience — and an incredibly trying one.

That’s not a pejorative. Haneke is the first Competition film
director at Cannes this year to both succeed totally on the terms he
sets out for himself, and truly challenge the audience to bear witness
to something they’ve never seen on screen before: a realistically slow
death, and all the unpleasantness it entails, depicted without
sentimentality, to the point where when Huppert’s character breaks down
in tears, Haneke films her with her back to the camera. I’ve heard other
audience members report that the movie made them cry; It didn’t work on
me that way. Even as the film’s depicted events became increasingly
sad, it seemed to me that Haneke aimed to withhold opportunities for
that kind of catharsis. I emerged from the film chilled to the bone,
anxious to talk to my boyfriend and get a bowl of warm soup in my
system. Which is its own kind of visceral emotional response.

In their infinite wisdom, the Cannes programmers offered a de facto Isabelle Huppert double feature by scheduling a screening of Hong Sang-Soo’s In Another Country,
in which Huppert plays three different women in a film-within-the-film,
for shortly after the Amour premiere. More on that in my next update.