Film review by John Campbell
We don’t bat an eyelid as the body count soars in much of mainstream cinema. Dying heroically, tragically, in picaresque close up or as a background extra, clinically or with blood hosing from arteries, they drop like flies on the big screen.
Death is so distant, we are immune to it until it makes an unwelcome visit to our own cocooned world. It might taunt us while we lie awake in the wee small hours, but what we’re really afraid of is old age. The ever increasing popularity of cosmetic surgery is a stark indicator of the terror with which we react to the passage of time.
So it is confronting in the extreme to see a film that deals so uncompromisingly with the unspeakable. When police and the fire brigade smash their way into a Paris apartment they find the elegantly dressed corpse of an elderly woman, at peace on her bed. It is Anna (Emmanuelle Riva), but there is no sign of her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). From this moment we flash back to find them enjoying a night out at a piano recital – Anna had been a renowned musician and teacher. They get the bus home, Georges has a nightcap and at breakfast Anna has an episode of impenetrable blankness.
An unsuccessful operation fails to rectify the malfunction in her brain and after a series of strokes Georges finds himself hapless as his darling wife begins to descend into a vegetative state. It is not a cheery scenario, granted, but Michael Haneke’s award winning movie (at the Oscars and Cannes), quiet, dimly lit and enclosed almost entirely within the walls of the couple’s home, draws you deeper by the minute into love most private, enduring and, in its inevitable way, cruel. Riva and Trintignant are magnificent, as is Isabelle Huppert as their distraught daughter Eva.
We end where we began, but having arrived with Georges at a moment of pure transcendence. Earlier, looking through a photograph album, Anna pauses to say ‘It’s beautiful.’ ‘What is beautiful?’ ‘Life.’