The director of such bleak affairs as Funny Games and The Piano Teacher, Austria’s cinematic master of misery Michael Haneke returns with yet another drawn-out tale of human misfortune and suffering. Without a shred of irony, the film is titled Love.
The winner of the Cannes film festival’s prestigious Palm d’Or — Haneke’s second win in four years after the equally depressing The White Ribbon in 2009 — the picture begins with police breaking down the doors of an upscale Parisian apartment, the building’s other residents have complained about the smell. Inside, arranged reverently on the bed and scattered with flowers, they find the slowly decaying body of an elderly woman (Emmanuelle Riva; Hiroshima mon Amour).
Flashing back, we learn that the woman is Anne, and that she lives in the apartment with her loving husband George (Jean-Louis Trintignant; Three Colours: Red). Retired music teachers, the pair live a happy life together, until a sudden and expected stroke paralyses Anne on the right side of her body.
It’s the beginning of a long but steady decline, one that plays out in painstaking detail over the next two hours. Confined at first to a wheelchair but eventually her bed, Anne struggles to remain positive, but her spirits soon fade, along with her body and mind. The resolute George tends to his wife with all the care in the world, but it’s a losing battle, and everybody knows it.
Riva and Trintignant are both phenomenally good, perfectly at ease in their roles and with each other. In early sequences, their gentle, humorous banter only heighten the weight of the devastation that is to come. As Anne’s maladies worsen, the physicality of the actresses performance – limbs twisted, lips trembling, eyes staring vacantly into space or accusingly with helpless humiliation – grows so distressing that death starts to seem merciful. So to for George, whose heartbreak, hidden for the sake of his wife, grows more and more agonising with every darkening day.
As per usual, Haneke’s camera is unflinching. Every scene, no matter how incidental, plays out at untempered length; when George aids Anne shuffle from one side of the room to the other, we witness every long-suffering second of the pitiful five metre journey. With lengthy takes and minimal camera movement, Haneke communicates all the minutia and indignity of a slow and inevitable death. While your tears may be jerked, your patience may also be tested. The last fifteen minutes really start to drag, especially as the films eventual ending point seems almost entirely arbitrary.
Still, while the deliberate pacing is frequently frustrating, it’s this committed approach that ultimately makes the film so affecting. What’s depicted here is true love. Not romantic, not idealistic, not flashy. But utterly devoted, till death do it part.
Love was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival. For more MIFF reviews, click here.