An examination of life and death, this minimalist film succeeds on all levels.
Austrian director Michael Haneke won the Palme d’Or at the 65th Cannes Film Festival, May, 2012, for this sensitive and extensive exploration into the love two people have for one another. Starring three of the top actors working in cinema, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert, the film is a marvelously filmed and acted treatise on love, loyalty, life and death.
Haneke is no stranger to heavy topics and the material is this film threatens to be too ponderous to handle. The film itself proves that he has successfully walked the tight rope between cherished emotion and exploitation.
Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Georges and Emmanuelle Riva plays Anne, two elderly music teachers. When Anne falls victim to a series of strokes, Georges cares for her until her death. There is little more to tell of the basic story. It is the story of life, love and death boiled down to the essentials.
It is harder to make a simple film than it is to make a complicated one. Haneke (writer as well as director) has accomplished a miracle of film making with this movie. The film opens with a piano concert and the doors of an apartment bursting open under the forces of the police.
It is only at the end of the film that these two disjointed events come together. The film is shot almost entirely within George’s and Anne’s apartment. 127 minutes is a long time to use the same set. This works because the familiar background allows the viewer to put aside the exterior world and go into the hearts and minds of the couple.
The interaction of the couple with the public is mostly limited to their contact with the concierge couple in the building where they live. The caretakers treat the couple with respect and in their eyes; we feel they have seen this before.
The screenplay examines a few of the debates surrounding aging, such as elder care facilities and the exhausting effort required to care for the seriously disabled.
Isabelle Huppert plays the daughter Eva who is thrown into the situation without warning and finds herself barely able to cope. Alexandre Tharaud plays Alexandre, one of Anne’s most accomplished students. Through him and the music he makes, she lives on.
The cinematography is of the excellence one would expect. Although the interior set stays the same, becoming like an apartment we have lived in for years, the sunlight and views from the outside come and go. As the painful situation is reconciled, the sunlight gets stringer and the shadows within the apartment disappear.
After Georges and Anne leave the apartment for the last time, the film returns to the beginning, the blasting open of the closed doors to let in the light and fresh air of the outside world at last.
When this happens, we know that the couple has been released from the bondage of their painful existence and their earthly work lives on in Alexandre while they move on to freedom. In the final analysis, this is what the film is about; understanding and accepting the ends of our lives.
Dialog is sparse in this film. The pictures do most of the talking. Given the acting and screenwriting there is little need for dialog. Watching the film the audience can tell what is in the minds of the characters. We are mystified, then transfixed, anxious, angry and, finally, accepting, just as are the characters.
A minimalistic film by some standards, Haneke uses subtle changes in lighting and close up shots of the actors to carry the story. In this way, he puts us in the places of the subjects. We live the story as they live it.
Although it is impossible for anyone to understand what it is like to live through the death of a loved one, until they have done it, this film comes very close. The acting and photography are the best they can be, although the feeling of the film will be too narrow and claustrophobic for some.
This is one of the most thorough and unflinching treatments of death ever made. Given that death is the number one taboo in our culture, the film treads on dangerous ground. It was an act of great courage to make this film. By the looks of it, the cast and crew has succeeded remarkably.
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Directed and Written by: Michael Haneke
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert
Release Date: December 19, 2012
MPAA: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language
Run Time: 127 minutes
Country: Austria / France / Germany
Language: French / English with English subtitles