Michael Haneke is now a firm favourite to join the illustrious list of two-time Palme d’Or winners thanks to this heart-breaking tale about the dying weeks in the relationship of an octogenarian couple.
From the dramatic opening in which the authorities burst into a stench-filled Paris apartment and discover the corpse of Anne (Emanuelle Riva), lying in bed with flowers placed ceremoniously around her head, Haneke holds dramatic tension without needing to rely on the brutal and often excessive off-screen violence that has been his signature. The questions immediately posed are: where is her family? Why have the authorities taken so long to discover the body? And was this murder?
A master of framing pictures and montage, Haneke’s oeuvre has often demanded an academic reading, preferably with a good understanding of semiology. Love, though, is his most straightforward film, a look at how the aged are often left to fend for themselves as time takes its toll and sickness sets in, especially in societies where families are dispersed and looking after the elderly is an unwanted burden. It’s a universal tale that is at times touching and horrifying and always powerful.
Apart from one early scene at a classical music concert (where only the audience is seen) and another on a bus, the film takes place entirely in the apartment of retired music teachers Anne and George (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Returning home from the concert they discover that someone has tried and failed to break in. Anne is clearly frazzled and upset and the next day she starts to lose her memory before suffering a stroke. For the rest of the film, Haneke forces us to watch and squirm as her condition worsens.
The drama rests on a great performance by Trintignant, back on camera for the first time in a decade. Anne describes her husband as “a monster, also capable of great kindness.” It’s mostly his great kindness that we are privy to, as he organises the home-help, shops, and takes sporadic visits from his London-based daughter Eva (played by Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert) and former pupil Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud).
The dialogue is exceptional. Each conversation is laced with double-meaning, every word part of a power play. Menace and conflict lurk in the shadows. The few metaphors when they come are simple, a pigeon in the house, a dream sequence and a montage of eerie landscape paintings, but by being more straightforward, Haneke’s morality tale is all the more powerful.