Obviously a festival favourite, this French language film has been shown at Paris, Berlin and Vienna, among others and won the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2012. It is a powerful exploration of an elderly couple, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintigant), whose relationship undergoes severe strain when Anne suffers a stroke and Georges has to care for her.
The story is told in one long flashback, so the outcome is known from the beginning. Both Anne and Georges are retired piano teachers, and an introductory scene shows them among an audience watching a pianist at a performance. The film features a lot of talk about music, and lots of records and CDs on the bookshelves, but there is no intrusive background music. Towards the end Georges drifts into music in his mind and he imagines Anne sitting at the piano.
One of Anne’s former pupils visits her and begins to play a piece on the piano in the apartment, but the film is often silent. When Georges plays the piano himself, we can clearly hear Anne’s breathing. A cleaner comes and does the hoovering; other sounds are running water or the chink of a knife on a plate. To break the quietude, Georges does the washing up with the radio on.
Apart from the opening concert scene, the film is shot entirely in the apartment. There are close-ups of the landscape pictures on the walls, and further intimate images of Anne’s face as she is fitted with a nappy by a nurse. This silence and single set, combined with a very small cast could become oppressive were it not for the sensitive direction of Michael Heneke and the outstanding acting abilities of the couple and their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert) which flesh out this everyday domestic tale of ageing and family dynamics.
Anne’s incapacity is the result of a failed operation on a blocked carotid artery. There is only a 5% failure rate, but that is little comfort for the patient. Anne makes Georges promise never to take her back to the hospital, which he is willing to do in the early stages. She returns to the apartment in a motorised wheelchair, spinning around with rare laughter. They realise they still have many stories they haven’t told each other even after so many years of marriage, and their emotions intensify with their memories.
As Anne deteriorates, she becomes increasingly frustrated and grumpy. Georges tells her she will end up friendless and scolds, “What would you say if no one came to your funeral?” to which she replies, “Nothing, probably”. Georges cuts up her food, dresses her, takes her to the toilet, and washes her hair with a saucepan in the bath. He acts without any trace of rancour but it is clear that as he must do everything for her, neither of them has any independence.
When Anne tries to reach for a book, she falls out of bed and breaks a lamp. Georges calmly repositions her, and all the inanimate objects, mildly rebuking, “Can’t you call me when you need something?” Anne begs him not to treat her like a moron and insists that she doesn’t want to go on – not for her sake but for his – as she knows it will only get worse. His own fears are of being burgled or invaded and he worries about leaving the apartment to fetch groceries, involving the concierge and his wife who keep a respectful distance while supplying neighbourly assistance.
Hiring a nurse gives Georges some relief yet, despite his daughter’s urging, he refuses to renege on his promise. Eva reinforces the audience’s understanding of the bond between her parents when she tells Georges that she remembers hearing them make love. Unlike many children, she wasn’t embarrassed at the thought of her parents’ sex life but rather felt reassured, thinking it proved that they were in love and would always have each other.
Eva’s husband has affairs, which she is used to although her father doesn’t understand why she stays in an unhappy relationship. And this is the nub of the film – no one can understand the ties that bind, whether through marriage or blood. Georges tells Eva, “I love you as much as your mother” but his ability to juggle affiliations is limited. When Eva bemoans Anne’s state, Georges tells her, “Your concern is no use to me. I don’t have time to deal with your concern. It annoys me to see you breeze in here saying what’s right. Who do you think you are?” She is family.