CANNES – For the vast majority of his career, Michael Haneke has had a well-deserved reputation as a master of cinematic cruelty. His best films have felt like cruel pranks on his audience, underscored by a deep contempt for human weakness. I have always had an uneasy relationship with his work, admiring him on a technical level but afraid of each new film and the razor’s edge contained within.
“Love,” his new film, made its debut today in competition at the 65th annual Cannes Film Festival, and while it is unmistakably his, this may be the single most humane picture he’s ever made. Beautiful and sad, the film is essentially a two person piece, with Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva playing a French husband and wife in their twilight years. The film opens with police breaking down the door of their apartment. Covering their mouths and noses to protect from a smell, they search the apartment, finding one bedroom door sealed with tape. When they finally get it open, they find a body on the bed, dead and covered in flowers. With the next scene, Haneke takes us back in time to the beginning of the process that ended in that room, and it is a crushing experience he has crafted.
Georges (Trintignant) and Anne (Riva) are in their 80s, still active, still very much in love. She is a former music teacher, and as we meet them, they are attending a performance by Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), one of her former pupils. He’s gone on to become a major acclaimed talent. After the show, they walk home, and their nighttime rituals together reveal quite a bit about the familiar ease of this life they share. There’s a gentle, quiet quality to this first stretch of the film, right up to the moment where they are at breakfast and Anne seems to simply freeze up, not responding to anything Georges says or to his touch. He freaks out a bit, and is preparing to leave to go get help when she snaps out of it. She remembers nothing, and she’s irritated at his insistence that something’s wrong with her. Finally, he convinces her to go see a doctor.
And just like that, their life together begins to decay. “Love” does not pack any major narrative twists and turns. It’s not that kind of film. Instead, it gets close-up and personal as this couple goes through what I have to believe is a fairly common experience for people fortunate enough to grow old together. I know that my parents, who are in their early ’70s now, are at that point where even minor health concerns have the potential to become major health concerns, and they take good care of each other, knowing how serious things can be, determined to share as many years together as they can. I’m just reaching my own ten-year-anniversary with my wife this year, and when I think of still being there for one another decades from now, it is at once comforting and terrifying, because I cannot fathom watching someone you love slip away by degrees.
In fact, that is the thing that makes “Love” so pulverizing as an emotional journey. There is nothing that disturbs me more than the notion of losing yourself. Being trapped in your own skin as your mind slips away seems to be the most terrible thing imaginable. Not being in control of your body, not being able to communicate even the most basic ideas to those around you… I think I’d prefer something quick to take me. I don’t want to linger in some sort of half-aware state, and I don’t want to be a burden to anyone else. Georges is as faithful and tender a caregiver as he can be for his wife, but Anne knows full well that something is wrong and getting worse every day. Their daughter Eva (played in a few short memorable scenes by Isabelle Huppert) wants to be more involved once she learns what has happened, but she is shut out by both parents. Georges knows that Anne does not want an audience for what is happening to her, even if it is her own daughter. There is a private communion between husband and wife that goes deeper than any other relationship when it comes to this sort of caregiving situation.
“Love” may not offer up much more than a linear ride straight down, but it does so with a humane and steady hand, and it suggests that as Haneke ponders the end of his own life, he is finally ready to express something tender and beautiful, something that invites the audience in to ask hard questions instead of punishing them for the sheer sport of it. I do not think “Love” is the best film he has ever made, but it may be the the most recognizably honest of them.
“Love” will be released in the US later this year by Sony Pictures Classics.