Cannes 2012 | Love Review: The Extent of Michael Haneke's Achievement Can Scarcely Be Overstated
The film jumps into life with a brilliant opening scene in which firefighters burst into a seemingly empty apartment. The one-shot sequence starts with the front door being broken open with a sharp blow, following which the crew enter the apartment and set about opening a taped-up bedroom door while another firefighter takes a look around the premises and opens some windows, whose net curtains billow into the clearly stuffy flat; meanwhile, the door has been opened, revealing a body. Credits.
The film then takes us back into the months -- perhaps years? -- leading up to this, showing the relationship of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) in all of its subtleties and ambiguities, all the little habits and manners they have with each other, which are gradually replaced with a wearying routine as Anne suffers a stroke, and then another, leaving her unable to cope on her own, and entirely reliant on her husband. As the intelligent, warm, independent couple of concert piano players have to adjust their relationship, their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) comes to feel left out of the care that is being given to her mother.
Haneke applies a great poetic imagination to this story, painting the erosion of these people's lives not just in a realistic and compassionate manner, but with beautiful lyrical touches. There's a fantastic nightmare scene in which Georges finds himself in a flooded corridor of their now-empty apartment, and grabbed at by an arm surging from nowhere; there are also two delightful, intriguing sequences in which the old man tries to evacuate a stray pigeon from their rooms. The use of music is fantastic, with piano-playing giving way to bursts of memory, and an unspeakably moving scene in which Georges coaches his gibbering, ruined wife through a child's lullaby.
Everything is beautifully observed, from the couple's well-stocked bookshelves and elegant flat to the sense of humour and understanding they share, as well as the sharpness that exists in their loving relationship, reminding us of their individual characters and of the fierce intelligence behind their actions. The relationship with their daughter is well imagined, too: the father protective of his wife to an impossible degree, having none of the fondness for his child that he feels towards his wife and hurtfully blocking her out of Anne's life. The actors play these scenes beautifully: Huppert, in only a few scenes, gives another incredible performance as the daughter who cannot help, who defies her father and is driven to tears by her mother's gradual extinction. Trintignant gives a towering performance full of humanity, sharing a closeness with Riva that makes you believe in their love wholeheartedly, such as in scenes where he helps her into her wheelchair: their joint struggle is unbearably moving. George's some-time steeliness is also well conveyed by Trintignant, who meets his match in Riva's quietly commanding Anne. Riva plays out Anne's degradation beautifully, becoming a ghost of the person she was, and reverting to an upsetting childlike state by the end of the film.
Haneke's mastery is evident in the way everything comes together in this very powerful, absorbing drama, offering a remarkably consistent and convincing portrayal of love in the face of death. It is a truly superb film.
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