Describing the work of Michel Houellebecq, English writer Julian Barnes said that his novels ‘hunt big game, while others settle for shooting rabbits’. The same could be said of the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. His films frequently pursue the ‘big game’ or tackle the major, uncomfortable truths of our society. Funny Games (1997), for example, deals with violence and its representation. Caché (2005) considers, amongst other things, the legacy of French colonialism in Algeria. Code Inconnu (2000) explores barriers within society whilst his last film Le Ruban blanc (2009) questions the nature of evil. In a similar way to Houellebecq, however, Haneke’s work is more concerned with probing, provoking and asking questions than he is with providing answers. Whilst both may hunt ‘big game’, accuracy of their aim is always open for debate. Indeed, attempts to ‘read’ Haneke’s films for a message, lesson or standpoint frequently leave viewers frustrated and the director (perhaps correctly) labelled with the epithet ‘pessimist’.
Amour is no different from Haneke’s previous films in that it also deals with a big issue. Perhaps the biggest It explores the relationship between the octogenarian married couple Anne and Georges (played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant) in the light of the former’s physical deterioration. Anne’s death is inevitable within the film; the opening scene sees her dead, decaying on her bed surrounded by flowers in a locked room. Haneke is interested less in how she died, however, than in how her relationship with Georges – from where the ‘amour’ of the title comes – survives her physical decay.
Riva and Tritignant’s performances bring the film to life and give it an emotional range that moves it beyond the morbid. Riva’s performance is particularly striking as an older actress rehearsing the inevitable sufferings and frustrations that old age brings. Tritignant’s role as Georges is also particularly poignant as he tenderly displays his determination to care for her at home, despite the protestations of Eva (Isabelle Huppert). Georges is determined not to renege on Anne’s wish, after an early visit and a botched operation, to never again return to hospital. It is Georges’ commitment to Anne’s wish that produces the compelling double-bind at the heart of the film, delicately captured by Tritignant and Haneke; he proves his love for her by taking care of her at home, despite having the resources to have her relocated in a retirement home, but is himself physically limited in terms of how much assistance he can provide.
The sense of space created in Amour is also crucial to the film’s success. Aside from an early visit to a classical concert, the film takes place entirely in Georges and Anne’s bourgeois Parisian apartment. Indeed, the couple appear to exist in a symbiotic relationship with it; on returning from the concert, they discover an attempted break-in, a symbolic suggestion, perhaps, of the suffering to follow. Equally, the discoloured wallpaper at Anne’s bedside seems also to suggest decay and deterioration. Anne and Georges are happy together, alone in their flat; when the front door is breached and external figures enter the flat – Eva, the ex-pupil Alexandre, an inconsiderate carer and even an unruly pigeon – they cause frustration, upset or annoyance through a reminder of Anne’s state of decay.
Like Haneke’s previous films, the ending is ambiguous. It is unclear what roles Anne and Georges will themselves play together or separately as the film draws to a close. Amour does, however, leave the audience with more hope than any of Haneke’s other films. The apartment does not, as in Haneke’s Le Septième continent (1988) – his story of a suicidal family, become oppressive or claustrophobic. A notable shot late in the film is telling: the camera lingers on each of the couple’s landscape paintings, each presenting an idyllic scene. This, combined with Georges imagination, suggested by flashbacks to a happier life and a healthier Anne, suggest, if not a happy ending, a (slightly) more optimistic Haneke.