Occasionally, a film is made so well, it transports you into the story and makes you a living, breathing part of it. And when these films depict realistic or real-life events, the effect is both exhilarating and horrifying. On the one hand, you are happy to be in the hands of filmmakers who are at the top of their game and extremely passionate about the story. On the other hand, the place they transport you to might not be so great.
This is what film is supposed to do, transport you to a time and place, and I love it when this happens. But it doesn’t happen often. In the last few months, it has happened twice.
The winner of the Palme D’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Amour” tells the story of two elderly Parisians (Jean-Louis Trintingnant and Emmanuelle Riva, two veteran actors), retired music teachers, who live a comfortable life in their Paris apartment. One morning, Georges notices that his wife, Anne, blanks out at the breakfast table, apparently unresponsive for a number of minutes. Just as he is about to rush out and get a doctor, she comes to and doesn’t seem to realize what has just happened. This is the beginning of her mental and physical downward spiral. “Amour” paints an almost painful picture of this journey and depicts what her husband goes through while trying to care for his wife, the love of his life.
Michael Haneke, the writer and director of one of my favorite films “Cache (Hidden)”, has been creating a series of highly regarded films, each of which seems to be more emotional, powerful and critically applauded than the last. His latest features two veteran French actors painting a quiet, emotional story of the end of their lives.
Basically, there are two characters in the majority of the film, Georges and Anna. Occasionally, a care worker or their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) pop in for a few moments, but the majority of the film is set in their Paris apartment and concentrates on their lives. This concentration does a few things. First, it shows us how isolated they have become from the rest of society. They seem to realize and acknowledge this, but to also accept it. They go out to watch a former student perform a concerto, Many weeks (months?) later, the student comes for a visit. It is obvious this is a well-meant, but isolated incident. When their daughter comes to visit, it is clear she is there primarily to see how her parents are doing, to check on the health of her mother. She never visits in a social manner leading to an emotional moment between father and daughter late in the film.
The couple’s isolation also allows us to focus only on them. We learn things about them while watching them, while listening to them, while observing. The beauty of this film is that these things are never revealed in a grand manner. In fact, if you blink, or go to the bathroom during the film, you might miss some of them. But because we are watching a film about the two characters, and they are virtually the only people in the film, your attention is always on them. And as you watch, you realize something. Although they don’t say it, in fact I don’t think they say it once during the entire film, Georges and Anna really do love one another. They have had a long and full life with one another so when the time comes for one of them to care for the other, the partner jumps into the role wholeheartedly.
It quickly becomes clear that Georges will have to care for his ailing wife. Because they have been together for years, he knows that she doesn’t like doctors or hospitals, so he observes her wishes and cares for her at home. As the story progresses, you see Anna’s deteriorating health and the lengths Georges has to go to in order to care for his wife. It is heartbreaking because it is so difficult and so different from their lives before, when they were younger. How do I know about their earlier life? There are no flashbacks. Haneke gives us such an intimate portrait of this couple, you can almost imagine their earlier life. The trip to the concert at the beginning of the film, gives you an idea of the type of outing they must have had on a more regular basis. You can imagine them going to a concert and then sharing dinner at their favorite bistro. Now that they are older, they take the bus home. But as soon as they return to their apartment, they move like a well-oiled machine, anticipating each of their needs and wants.
Jean-Louis Trintingnant is an actor I am not overly familiar with; he seems to have made a number of Jean-Luc Goddard films including “A Man and a Woman” and appeared in “Three Colors: Red”. Trintingnant brings a quiet passion to his role as Georges. He doesn’t express a lot of emotion, but this doesn’t mean that Georges has no passion. Because they appear so natural together, you imagine the passion this older couple once had and you respect their long lives together. When it comes time to care for his ailing wife, he simply does it and does it in a way that he knows would respect his wife’s choices and likes, even when the care is extremely demanding and physical.
Emmanuelle Riva is also an actor I am not overly familiar; one of her notable films is “Hiroshima Mon Amour” and she was in “Three Colors: Blue”. Her role as Anna is heartbreaking because we don’t really watch it progress slowly. Haneke allows us into the couple’s life for a period of time, cuts, and then thrusts us back into their life a few days, weeks or months later. It is difficult to tell, because there is never any warning when we are going to make one of these time jumps. But each time we return to their lives, it is clear that Anna is continuing to decline. And the jumps between each state are jarring. Riva’s performance is mesmerizing and riveting because she seems to fully inhabit Anna’s deteriorating state. It is a difficult role to pull off because she has great difficulty speaking and can’t communicate with her husband, daughter or us. And there is a lot of sadness in her performance as she tries to cope with a failing body.
The two actors seem completely natural with one another and their performances complement one another perfectly. Trintingnant is quiet, intense and impassive. Riva is loud, distressed and very vocal because Anna is in so much pain.
Isabelle Huppert pops in a few times to check on the state of her mother. Her reactions are the reactions I think we would all have. We would want our parents to be cared for in the best way possible. And she reacts in the way most of us would react, as though we know what the best way is. The role is handled perfectly, adding punctuation to the portrayal of this couple’s life.
Haneke has crafted another emotional, intense film that is sure to have you grabbing a hanky at least a few times.
I know many people only want to go to films to “feel good” which means they probably go to a lot of comedies or romantic films or films with uplifting messages. But anytime I go to see a film that is as good as either of these is, whatever the subject matter, that makes me feel good. I enjoy seeing filmmakers working at the height of their crafts, creating films that will stay with me and that I will remember for a long time to come. “The Impossible” and “Amour” are both extremely well-made and transport you to dark places, places that you probably will not want to go to every weekend. But if you miss these works, you will be missing two of the best films of the year.
And now that I have seen this film, I will be very happy to never see it again. Instead, I eagerly look forward to the next film from Michael Haneke.