France-Germany-Austria 2012. Dir: Michael Haneke, Scr: Michael Haneke
It’s a rare thing to see respect for the old. It’s rarer for a western film to be so respectful of how certain lessons about life can only be taught by the old. And it is difficult not to learn something from this film. It opens with uniformed men breaking into a beautiful, wood-paneled French apartment to discover the body of an old woman, carefully laid out on a bed, surrounded by flower petals. It then flashes back to some time earlier, a concert, after which the central characters, octogenarians Anne and Georges, return home to signs of an attempted break-in. They seem to take this in their stride, but we feel a sense of foreboding at the intrusion into their comfortable stability. And they are a couple very comfortable with each other. Of course, their love is not the lust-coloured or artful love of our modern movies, but a companionable symbiosis. They enjoy each other’s stories: Georges tells of how he still remembers only the emotions evoked by a film he saw as a boy. Both were musicians and, for many years, they have had a cultured and ordered life together. After a worrying episode, when Anne loses time for a few moments, we discover she needs a risky operation to try to remove a blockage in her carotid artery. “Promise me never to take me back to the hospital”, she says when she returns to the apartment in a wheelchair. But her condition does not improve, we watch as it deteriorates inexorably.
Haneke’s handling of the complexities of the last phases of a life together, in which one partner gradually loses every part of themselves, is sensitive and precisely measured. Georges continues with dignity. We see the strain in his eyes as he talks in a matter of fact way to their only daughter about his daily and nightly routine. He does not want her help. This is his life and he sees only misunderstanding in how she is dipping in. We share his despair the only time he lose his temper with Anne, when she refuses to take food. He is devoted to her, angrily dismissing a carer for her selfish indifference and, in case we ever doubted it, a tender and symbolic scene in which a pigeon finds itself trapped in the apartment reminds us of the depth of his compassion.
Part of the appeal of the film is its ease on the eye. It is very deliberate in what is and isn’t shown. It is neatly stylish and moves along smoothly. But its elegance and tidiness fails those in the audience who have cared for a fading loved one. The more difficult Volcano, made by the Icelandic director Runar Runarsson only a year earlier on a very similar theme, will perhaps deliver more authenticity to that part of the audience. Nevertheless, the acting, particularly Emmanualle Riva as Anne, is extraordinary and brave. So, in the end, what’s left? Here Haneke helps us as he fixes on the paintings in the apartment: beautiful, heartbreaking symbols of a shared, past life. Love is what’s left.
Also by Michael Haneke (Selection):
The White Ribbon (2009)
Funny Games US (2007)
Hidden (Cache) (2005)
The Piano Teacher (2001)
Funny Games (1997)