The Austrian director Michael Haneke is known for his creepouts (Caché), freakouts (Funny Games), and for the general air of dislocating disturbance that he imparts to almost everything his camera peers at. Amour (Love), his brilliant and haunting new movie, which premiered at Cannes this morning, has a moment early on that is very Haneke-ian. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an old French couple in their still-vital early 80s, are seated at their cozily cramped little breakfast table, talking about this and that, and just as Georges is about to crack open his soft-boiled egg, he looks over at his wife, and she’s sitting there with a vacant stare, registering nothing. Even when he waves his hand in front of her face, she’s completely impassive, a zombie-ghost whose spirit has left the room. A minute or two later, she returns to normal, but Haneke holds that frozen trance just long enough that even as we wonder what’s happening to her (we assume that it’s some sort of early Alzheimer’s moment), her disquieting stillness carries an invisible hint of something otherworldly. It’s Haneke’s version of a David Lynch moment, or a Stanley Kubrick Shining moment. It’s about the presence of something we can’t see.
As it turns out, Amour is no spaced-out horror film. It’s an intensely clear-eyed and tender, at times almost voyeuristically intimate look at what happens to an aging, agreeably married couple when one of them starts to slip away. You may be thinking, “Ah, the prestige Euro version of an Alzheimer’s movie-of-the-week,” but Amour, in fact, is a great deal tougher and more mysterious than that. For one thing, it’s not completely clear that Anne has Alzheimer’s or dementia. After being taken to the doctor, where it’s revealed that her attack was caused by a blockage in her carotid artery, she gets an operation (which doesn’t work), and her condition grows steadily worse — but her deterioration, for a good while, is mostly physical. After a stroke, she becomes paralyzed on her right side, her hand curled into a gnarled fist, and though she does have moments of dementia, this is no soft-edged weeper like Away From Her in which we’re cued to get all misty and nostalgic as someone’s mind drifts sadly away.
What’s far more devastating in Amour is that Anne’s mind is mostly still there — and what it wants, what it needs, is for her to die. Georges does everything in his power to keep her alive and well, to maintain their connection for as long as he can. And that’s not because he’s in denial about what’s happening to her. Trying to better the situation — to nurture Anne towards life — is what he’s driven, as her lifelong partner, to do. For most of the film, the two of them are inside their vast, comfortably bourgeois, slightly decrepit old Paris apartment, with occasional visits by nurses, a former student, and their financier daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert. Haneke films his actors in meticulously framed, totally still master shots that he holds for quite a long time. Those shots may be “quiet,” but they’re wired from within by a kind of neorealist medical-horror suspense. We keep waiting for something even worse to happen. That’s an authentic portrayal of what goes on when someone’s health is falling apart, yet Haneke, while he has made an utterly realistic movie, infuses everyday dread with a touch of the uncanny. The movie is mostly just Georges and Anne, but something else is right there in the room, and we begin to realize, after a while, that that something is the call of death.
Does Amour sound hard to watch? At times it is. Yet it’s also transfixing and extraordinarily touching, perhaps the most hauntingly honest movie about old age ever made. Haneke has always been a creator of intricately detailed puzzles, and here he satisfies that clever intellectual side of himself by doing something both heady and deeply humane: Instead of giving us an apartment that looks like a movie set, he has thought out this one so that everything in it is casually yet fantastically weathered and lived in: the yellowing books and records stuffed into the shelves; the fraying, faded armchairs in the study that face each other in an awkward, beckoning communion; the family photo album that Anne leafs through. It’s perhaps the first photo album I’ve seen in a movie that looks like a real family photo album, with missing pictures and a general, random not-enoughness that says: These images are but shadows of a life.
The two actors are magnificent. The great Jean-Louis Trintignant, with that face of wormy melancholy guilt that compelled audiences 40 years ago in Bertolucci’s The Conformist, now looks like the aging Picasso with more hair, and if his manner is sophisticated, with a telling touch of self-satisfaction, his dark eyes still gleam — more than ever — with hints of a knowledge too despairing to share. He makes Georges a spiky and, in his way, contented man who doesn’t even want to try to imagine an existence without his wife. And Emmanuelle Riva, the veteran French actress who was celebrated 53 years ago for her performance in Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and is still very beautiful, here makes a staggering return to big-screen prominence with a performance that is fearless, physically audacious, and heartbreaking. When Georges tries to give Anne water, and Riva lets it roll angrily down her chin, the look on her face makes that act a violent denial of life and also, in its fury, the purest expression of it. It would be impossible to imagine either of these performances without the other, because what Trintigant and Riva have done is to show us what love is, and what it really looks like. And what it may, at its most secret moments, demand.
Cannes: The Americans take over, starting with Wes Anderson