No matter what happens at tonight’s Palmarès awards ceremony, the film from Cannes 2012 that seems sure to have the greatest resonance as it goes forth into the world is Michael Haneke’s Amour (Love). It is a title that, at first, may seem unusual for a film about the human body’s gradual betrayal of itself, and the effect this has on those who experience it and those who merely bear witness to it. It may also seem a strange title for a film by Michael Haneke, the great Austrian director best known in America for his Oscar-nominated study of the origins of German fascism, The White Ribbon; the surveillance thriller Caché; and The Piano Teacher, which was itself a kind of love story—the sadomasochistic kind. Yet there is no mistaking Amour for anything other than a great love story, and one of a sort rarely seen in movies—a portrait of two people at the end of a long, not always happy, but profound relationship, who find themselves tested by the words of that eternal promise: “till death do us part.”
The story of the film was inspired by an event in Haneke’s own family—an elderly relative who took her own life rather than suffer a prolonged descent into infirmity—and the film’s setting is one that Haneke has now mapped more acutely than any other director working today: the lives of bourgeois European artists and intellectuals whose privilege fails to insulate them from the violence and horrors of everyday life. Indeed, despite the various critics who chided earlier Haneke films for their supposed finger-wagging moralism and chilly Protestant air, and who are now falling over themselves to praise Amour as the director’s most compassionate work to date, Amour is as much of a home-invasion horror show as Haneke’s earlier Funny Games. Only, in this case, the masked intruder is none other than death himself. It is a connection slyly acknowledged by Haneke himself, who opens Amour with a scene in which the elderly couple, retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), return home from a concert to find that someone has attempted to break the lock on their apartment.
No amount of heightened security, however, can prevent the stroke that befalls Anne the next morning over breakfast, in the middle of a rather ordinary conversation with Georges about what they are going to do later that day. One moment she is there, present, her usual self, and the next she is silent, unresponsive, as if her soul has evaporated from her body. There is some surgery, which proves unsuccessful, and for the rest of Amour we—and Georges—watch as this vibrant woman further disappears before us, first physically, then mentally too. That risks making the sound morbid, when in fact I think it’s anything but. For while Haneke doesn’t shy away from showing us the reality of Anne’s decline—in unsparing but never exploitative detail—he also stresses at every moment the love that she and Georges share, and the beauty they continue to find together in music, and in each other’s gentle touch, even as the life they have known crumbles all around them.
The actors—both legends of the French screen lured out of semi-retirement for these roles—are extraordinary. You believe them instantly as people who have spent decades sharing the same air, surviving myriad betrayals and compromises, soldiering on, growing closer. (As one colleague remarked to me after seeing the film: “You can imagine these people having sex, even at their age,” which is a great deal more than can be said about the grotesque geriatric caricatures in the current box-office hit The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel). And if Riva has the more obvious tour-de-force, baring herself physically and emotionally on the screen, Trintignant is no less astonishing in his moments of confusion and quiet contemplation—capped by a pas de deux between him and a confused pigeon that has become trapped inside the apartment which is, I think, among the most poetic expressions of grief I have ever seen in a movie.
Likewise, Haneke’s direction is just about perfect—perfect in terms of the choice of shots, the distance between the camera and the actors, and between the actors themselves, and the unexpected bursts of lyricism the punctuate the film’s stark atmosphere. Midway through the film, there is an unexpected montage of landscape paintings, culminating in Anne’s remark, “C’est beau la vie.” And earlier, there is a scene in which Georges reminisces about himself as a young man, moved to tears by a film he had seen, and though he no longer remembers the name of the film, he still recalls the emotions stirred by it. Great movies can do that to us. And the emotions stirred by Amour are unforgettable.
In a curious quirk of scheduling, Haneke’s film premiered in Cannes on the same day as another atypical love story, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love, which marks the second film (after 2010’s Certified Copy) Kiarostami has made outside of his native Iran—this time in Japan. And like that previous film, this one is a relationship drama in which the central relationship is fluid, mysterious, and full of possibility—a brief encounter between two people who seem to be meeting for the first time but may in fact share some deeper connection.
She is a sociology student who moonlights as a high-end escort for hire. He is a retired professor who lives a quiet, solitary life surrounded by books, art, and music. One night, the young woman’s boss, a former student of the professor, dispatches her to the old man as a kind of gift. Reluctantly—she has to study for an exam—she makes the journey from Tokyo to Yokohama, where she finds a client who is considerably more interested in making soup for her, and talking, and playing old Ella Fitzgerald records (like the one that gives the movie its title), than in paid pleasures of the flesh. At which point, Kiarostami initiates a series of narrative doublings and parallels and glancing connections such as few filmmakers are able to deploy so elegantly.
The professor (played rather brilliantly by 81-year-old stage actor Tadashi Okuno, in his first leading role in a film) notes that the woman resembles the figure in a painting that hangs on the wall—a painting of a woman giving a speaking lesson to a parrot, or perhaps the other way around. The woman, in turn, notes that she resembles the professor’s wife, seen only in a photograph, whereabouts unknown. And perhaps, in some way, the man reminds the girl of her grandmother, who has journeyed to Tokyo to visit her, and whom she has been avoiding out of some feeling of shame over the life she has chosen to lead. Here, she feels safe somehow, and the man in turn seems to want to protect her, from nothing so much as the disappointments that come with age. Eventually, night gives way to the following day, and a touching attempt by the old man (posing as an uncle) to make peace between the young woman and her possessive, jealous boyfriend.
Viewed from one angle, Kiarostami’s delicate, beautifully directed film looks like a tender story of two people meeting at the wrong moment in both of their lives. Viewed from another, it suggests a fated encounter between people who conjure in each other the specters of the past and future, of roads not taken and those that still might be. Watching it, I was reminded strongly of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s magnificent Red, in which the relationship between a young model and her own emotionally insecure boyfriend echoes a story from the distant past of a reclusive judge (played, as it happens, by Amour star Jean-Louis Trintignant) whom the model meets when she runs over his dog. But here in Cannes, Like Someone in Love elicited a generally baffled reaction from the international press corps, who seemed to desire a movie that explained itself at every turn and laid all of its mysteries bare. A movie, in other words, where we know for sure whether it is the woman teaching the parrot or the parrot teaching the woman.
Earlier this week, I sat down with Kiarostami to discuss the film, the complete audio of which you can listen to here:
In recent days, I also caught up with Cristian Mungiu, whose powerful Beyond the Hills was discussed in my previous post and who, curiously, also sees his film as a kind of love story. “It’s mostly about affection. It’s about what people do in the name of love, what people are told to give up in the name of love, and what terrible things can be done in the name of love,” he told me in the course of our wide-ranging conversation, which also touches on his fears of repeating himself artistically after the triumph of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and what he wanted his new film to communicate on the subject of organized religion. Listen to the complete audio here: