Ever since this Michael Haneke film won the Academy Award for best foreign film, the DVD has been sitting on a table glaring at me to watch it -- it almost seemed to be daring me to do so. However, knowing the story concerned two octogenarians facing the end of their lives was so off-putting that it really was a case of forcing myself to finally play the disc. It is not a movie many young people will appreciate, but anyone who has watched a beloved relative suffer and die or anyone in their later years facing the spectre of their own mortality, will find themselves relating to the story and wondering just how they themselves would fare in its brutal scenario.
Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmannuelle Riva, movie icons dating back to the 1950s, play Georges and Anne, retired music professors rattling around in their spacious mansion flat, going through the daily motions of their lives, and complacent with their routine existence. When Anne has a minor stroke and a operation does not ameliorate her condition, she makes her husband promise that he will not let her go back to the hospital or dump her in a care home. One can not 'spoil' the ending of this film, since the opening scene shows firemen breaking into the sealed apartment and finding Anne's decaying body covered in blossoms. We know from the start that there is no happy ending to come.
What Haneke gives us instead is the impossible situation that Georges finds himself in as Anne's health continues to deteriorate and he becomes her primary caretaker, straining with showers and nappies, knowing that his own health is beginning to suffer. This is the first film that Trintignant has appeared in for seven years (and his last to date) and the director wooed him to take the role. He reluctantly agreed saying that it was not a movie he himself would wish to see -- understandably since he was 82 at the time. He does a magnificent job with his sad eyes registering every indignity his wife suffers. This is not so much a film about love as the title would have it but rather about the responsibility one accepts (or resents) after spending a lifetime with one's partner or spouse. Neither the help of a part-time nurse nor the occasional nagging concern of their daughter, Isabelle Huppert, can free Georges from his being torn between duty and despair. Love doesn't really get a look in.
Riva at 80, Oscar-nominated for her role, has the easier part, but it is heart-breaking to both her and the viewer to see her formerly independent spirit brought down by age and illness, to the extent that she has lost any will to survive. It's a story that plays itself out every day in every corner of the world and it is remorseless -- a very, very hard watch. Music features throughout this film, but no piece is ever finished, just as life, Haneke seems to tell us, can never be played out to the desired end. He won his second Palme d'or at Cannes for this film, but in my book his earlier winner "The White Ribbon" (2009) is the masterpiece of the two. This one is far too depressing in so many ways to completely engage the viewer, and entertainment doesn't enter into it.
I've seen all of Haneke's cinematic output and there is a streak of nihilism and despair running throughout his oeuvre. He does not normally believe in giving us easy answers or a clear denouement. I found his other critical favourite "Cache" (2005) more than a little frustrating in this respect. In this film he leaves us wondering what Georges plans for the pigeon, an unwelcome visitor to the flat, that he so carefully captures or for that matter what in the world has become of his character by the film's end. It may be fine to let the viewer decide these things for himself, but it is also sometimes upsetting not to understand the director's intentions. Me...I like a tidy ending even if it's not a happy one.