‘In sickness and in health.’ We all have heard those vows at some point. Some of us have even made them. To most people, on the day itself there is not much to the words. They’re part of a ritual. From my own experience I can say that you are far too caught up in the whole ceremony to think about what those words really mean. And who wants to think about sickness anyway?
Yet, if your love stands the test of time, there will come a moment when sickness does rear its ugly head. And that is when your love (or your partner’s) is tested again, and hopefully will come through. In his new film, Amour, Austrian director Michael Haneke explores this subject with a very precise eye and understanding. Haneke is often accused of seeking out the dark side of humanity in his films, focusing on the cruel and the brutal. But here he shows just as much insight into the goodness of humanity, the loving and caring side, even if the subject itself is dark indeed.
Georges and Anne (as always, of course) are a retired couple, former music teachers in their eighties, living in Paris. They have one daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), also a musician, who lives in London. One day at breakfast Anne has a stroke. She is taken to the hospital, and she returns confined to a wheelchair due to paralysis of the right side of her body. She makes Georges vow never to let her be admitted to a hospital again. And so Georges starts to take care of Anne on his own (though later helped by nurses). As Anne’s situation deteriorates, the couple’s bond is severely tested. ‘In sickness and in health,’ indeed.
So the basic gist of the film is simple. This is a love story, but removed from all of the romance that we usually associate with such stories. The love between these people and the bond they have built over the long years of marriage rings very true, and is certainly more realistic than most such bonds portrayed on film. These two people have advanced far past that stage where romance turns into something deeper, reaching a point where love really means to take care of and sacrifice for your partner, without question. That Haneke chooses to show this love through adversity is perhaps his dark streak flaring up, but it’s probably at the worst times that love soars most. The director films the relationship with an austerity and measurement that he has become known for, giving a slightly detached (though not cold) view of his subject, helped by the precise cinematography of Darius Khondji. The framing here is immaculate, the big open spaces of the couple’s Paris apartment given full breadth to punctuate the bond between the two people living in it, as if that bond is all they have, in a world they have otherwise very little attachment to. Notice how they both try to get outsiders out of the apartment as soon as possible, down to their own daughter and son-in-law. They have each other, and in this time of need they grow closer together, and further apart from the outside world.
The film rests firmly on the shoulders of veterans Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in the lead roles, and both are phenomenal. If you didn’t know better, you would think these two actually were married for fifty-odd years. The way they play off each other and the chemistry they have is amazing, and both are, at least up until now in the fest, hot favorites for the acting awards. The subtlety in the work is often so natural that the performance of Isabelle Huppert, a naturalistic actress herself, at times comes off as theatrical (while still excellent in her three significant scenes). A change in the eyes, an almost imperceptible change in expression – in everything, one can see that these two actors carry a professional experience of over 100 years combined. Trintignant’s initial confusion, slowly turning to acquiescence and finally determination, is perfectly conveyed by the actor through his line readings and posture. Riva has, towards the end, the more physical part, and her transformation from a cultivated, well-spoken woman to a bedridden, paralysed, gibberish-talking shadow of a human being is as impressive as Trintignant’s. Other actors are mostly relegated to single scenes and not of note.
The biggest triumph of the film, however, is Michael Haneke’s work. Just like Terrence Malick proved last year with The Tree of Life, the director shows he has a deep understanding of humanity and love, all the while adhering to his trademark austere style. It is interesting that moving away from the darker side results in the Austrian’s best film ever, probably his masterpiece. This level of filmmaking is staggering, and even if I (after just one viewing) do not feel fully passionate about it, I can greatly admire and respect the work, which is one of the most sincere films on the love between two people ever. I hope that one day my own marriage will reach this level of dedication, each to each.