Wednesday, 21 November 2012
Michael Haneke makes films for adults who want to be treated as intelligent. The commercial function of mainstream cinema to feed docile audiences with pureed cliché and sentiment in the name of entertainment are anathema to him. His films are unashamedly cerebral and severe. They are tough experiences - film making in the “High Morbid Manner”. They press one’s face (at times, with sadistic force) against some aspect of reality, pinning the viewer to the glorious and basest features of his nature, until, tapping the canvas, he is forced to submit to the reality.
Haneke’s interest is the fragility of the human enterprise and an individual’s vulnerability before the demands of living. In the face of violence (Funny Games) or an obsessive relationship (The Piano Teacher), when living under the surveillance camera (Hidden) or the brutality of provincial totalitarianism (The White Ribbon), what moral response is appropriate? His cinematic answers are tenebrous.
Like previous films, Amour is concerned with the vulnerability of the human situation – in this case, the ageing process and the degradations that some of the elderly will face as their bodies and minds begin to fail them. In such circumstances, what does love look like? What does it cost? What, if anything, remains of love?
Haneke places our mortal natures on the dissection table and, using the sharpest visual imaging, picks them clean until the whites of our bones are laid bare. The process of sickness, deterioration and death are recorded with mimetic detail. It is designed to make your skin crawl. “Death subtends life, or underlies life,” the pathologist F Gonzales-Crussi writes, “and the action of time consists in peeling away successive layers so as to render death ever more visible.” The relentless erosion caused by suffering and death appals our Western liberal sensitivities. Our attempts to preserve ourselves from suffering are shown to be futile - no one escapes death. We would prefer decay and corruption to be hidden from public view, behind a hospital ward curtain. But our familiarity with suffering and death also provide us with a brutal clarity about what it is to be alive.
Amour is about an elderly married couple, Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva). They are classical musicians who live in a chic Parisian apartment, designed around their cultural interests: books, paintings and a grand piano. The passage of time has matured and softened their love for each other. This is expressed in small acts of physical tenderness and a stability found in shared experiences. When Anne has a stroke, leaving her paralysed, George chooses to care for her at home. The film follows the decline of her mental and physical faculties over the weeks and months and George’s response to her deterioration.
In Haneke’s film, Funny Games, two delinquent, violent youths invade the home of a family and torture them with “games” that are anything but funny. The theme of invasion of a home occurs again in Amour, where George and Anne’s home is invaded by sickness and death. It is chilling to watch the mechanical bed being fitted in the bedroom, every bedside table top being annexed by boxes of medication and other medical detritus. Their home is violated by these objects and slowly transformed into a mausoleum. Mortality plays funny games with them.
In all of this, Haneke finds moments of tenderness – the calming experience of a caress, the care with which a lovingly prepared meal is spoon fed, the intimacy of sharing childhood memories that cement their love. Old age and a long marriage are portrayed as beautiful things. But Haneke articulates this without sacrificing the psychological complexity of his characters. We see how generosity of intention and violent energies can coexist in the same nature; the fact that individuals can live lonely, even desperate lives, within otherwise mutually sustaining relationships. “You are a monster sometimes. You are also kind” Anne says to George.
Trintignant and Riva perfectly capture the fundamental splits, dualities and twinnings at the heart of George and Anne’s marriage. Both in their eighties, these actors produce performances that are perfectly pitched. By making themselves completely vulnerable before the camera, they make emotional and physical disintegration, sublime. It is deeply moving to see acting of such depth and honesty.
Amour makes so much other film-making look crass and adolescent. It does what all great art does - it tells us something about the ineffable business of being alive. That may not always be something we want to consider, but when we do, we grow and mature in ways that are beyond our imagining. We leave behind consoling deceptions and illusions – we become adults.