My first film of the 2012 Festival could well turn out to be the best – Michael Haneke’s heartbreakingly beautiful Amour. This is masterful film making, helped in no small part by painfully resonant performances from Jean-Louis Trintrigant (Georges) and Emmanuel Riva (Anne) as an elderly well-to-do couple living out their days in a beautiful Parisian apartment.
We watch as the couple’s lives slowly disintegrate. Anne is hit by a stroke which paralyses her down one side and her condition deteriorates both physically and mentally. Driven by pride and dignity, the couple struggle to carry on, allowing nurses to help out when it becomes too much for Georges, but shutting out their emotional daughter (another superb performance from Isabelle Huppert).
Haneke is never shy of taking risks and Amour is emotionally brutal, never turning away from the realities of watching someone you love get lost inside their own body. It’s an intensely intimate watch – for the most part you are inside that apartment with them, doors shut tight against a world that Ann is slowly forgetting.
At the film’s climax – which shocks although it’s not entirely unexpected – I found myself doing those dry heaving sobs that you can’t control. Apologies to the man next to me. And at the end, a cinema full of people left in silence. Powerful, magnificent stuff.
This is not an easy film to watch. It’s bleak, disturbing and full of things most of us don’t want to think about, let alone see on a big screen. If you have the stomach for it, this is a startling debut from Markus Schleizner – a brave and unsettling film which takes us into the home of an Austrian man who keeps a boy, Wolfgang, in his cellar. We don’t know how long he’s been there or how he got there, although we are given a fair idea, but it’s long enough for the boy to have accepted the situation and formed an attachment of sorts to his captor despite the atrocities he is subjected to. You don’t see the worst things, but they’re there, in your mind’s eye, every time Schleizner cuts away and there’s just a black screen. And as you watch the mundane routine of their daily life – the washing up after dinner, the scrubbing of a sink, the late night tv, it’s all with a crushing sense of foreboding.
Michael does his best to function as a normal person – he chases promotion at work, he goes on a lads skiing trip, he chats to his neighbours. But he does these things with the air of the permanent outsider, the office nerd – he’s never really at home in the company of anyone, avoiding too much social interaction even with his own family, though craving it in the same way he seems to crave normality. In the one scene that’s played a bit for laughs during his ill-fated skiing holiday, you might smile at his Mr Bean moment, but you can’t really laugh, because the unspeakable horror is always there and you can’t see Michael with anything other than disgust.
Schleizner has worked closely with Michael Haneke (best known for the also very creepy Funny Games) and his influence is clear – Michael is filmed with a matter of factness that brings nothing to the screen other than the bare minimum needed for each scene. It’s cold, stark, honest filmmaking. There’s a shot early on when you first see the door to the cellar and the boy appears slowly out of the darkness – you’ll find yourself holding your breath. And the final scenes, which I won’t spoil, will have you fighting the urge to shout at the screen.
Michael Fuith is perfect as Michael, in what must have been a hard role to take on (yes, there are a lot of Michaels involved). If you can bear to be anxious for an hour and a half, this is one to see.