by Angelo Muredda From the moment it screened at Cannes, Amour became the odds-on favourite to win the Palme d'Or, and no wonder: Terrence Malick worked more or less the same formalist-auteur-goes-humanist formula to great success just last year. But while The Tree of Life's cosmic drama was hardly a stretch for Malick, you have to think Amour, which ultimately did cop the big prize, was a harder nut to crack for Michael Haneke. He was, of course, first awarded the Palme for a thuddingly obvious Village of the Damned knockoff designed for people who don't do horror. Would he prove himself human after all?
As might be expected, Haneke's compositional shorthand--watch how he delineates the passing of time with respect to who's allowed to sit in a given chair--is unimpeachable in this two-hander about Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a happily-married octogenarian couple whose highly composed life comes apart when Anne suffers a debilitating stroke that brings endless complications. What's more surprising is how Haneke mostly steers clear of the intellectual gamesmanship of The White Ribbon, where every blonde child was a potential fascist, and every group of two or three a nationalist lynch-mob in the making. Anne isn't extreme old age or death personified here but simply Anne, whoever she is, or was. The past tense is the operative one, insofar as her deteriorating health makes her an alien presence in both the house and the film--a stranger to her husband, to herself, and to the camera, which fixates on her blank stare in close-up. (That Riva was the unnamed girl with a traumatic blot in her past in Hiroshima mon amour seems pertinent, an incidentally critical intertext for a movie that's no less obsessed with her face.)
This being Haneke, a more programmatic meaning is admittedly also available: you could think of Amour as his rejoinder to Hedda Gabler's desire for a beautiful death, which finds a surrogate in Anne's wish, before her illness muddies her elegant self-presentation and good breeding, to die peacefully at home, surrounded by Schubert. What lingers long after the film, though, are the details Haneke settles on, so contingent as to feel universal. Among these is a nicely underplayed image of a bedridden Anne surrounded by bookshelves she can no longer reach--the casual arrogance of bourgeois hoarding for prosperity undone in one stroke by the physical realities of disability. Even more affecting and flawlessly executed is Anne's first spell: Trintignant beautifully plays it such that George responds to her remoteness not with concern at first but with hurt feelings, a sense that his intellectual sparring partner of forty years has just changed the rules of engagement without warning. Such unspeakable, minor indignities, the picture suggests, hurt as much as anything physical. Programme: Masters