Let neither the evocative tenderness of the title, nor the delicacy of the poster deceive you. Love is a brutal movie. Of those which turn the hearts of the spectators, and leave after-effects long after their viewing. Released in 2012, Michael Haneke’s 11th feature film left no one indifferent. And especially not the juries who honored this drama behind closed doors with a mountain of rewards. Palme d’Or, Golden Globe, Bafta, Oscar for best foreign film, César for best film or even European Awards… Unheard of.
And yet … with Love, the Austrian director jumped with both feet into what has been regularly criticized: the unvarnished illustration of violence. With an approach hitherto unseen in his filmography. An approach where no one is to blame, and which could well make this the most chilling work he has ever produced. That is to say.
Anyone who has ever dabbled in a Haneke film will have understood in advance thatLove is not a rosewater romance atmosphere La La Land. But from there to imagine the extraordinary brutality that unfolds in the film, there is a step. Even a ditch.
At the beginning, we find a couple of former piano teachers. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva). We discover these octogenarian retirees in the middle of a concert hall, side by side. They love each other, the light in their eyes attests to it.
A few days later, Anne suffered a stroke which left her paralyzed on her right side. These are only the beginnings of a degradation that will eat away at all of his motor and cognitive capacities. Faced with the inexorable advance of the disease, Georges and Anne will reinvent the contours of their affection. Through his constant concern for her, the reciprocal attentions of everyday life. And until the fateful gesture.
A cinema of cruelty
In this story, nothing (or very little) is spared to the eye of the beholder. Haneke shows the pain, shows the decline, tells the inevitable. “There is no nothing to do, it will get worse and worse, then it will stop “, poses Georges when his daughter (Isabelle Huppert) proclaims that “do something”. In short, the filmmaker illustrates what none of us would ever like to witness. Like he usually does.
Already in his first feature film, The Seventh Continent (1988), the filmmaker described, with the clinical approach that will become characteristic of him, the steps of a family towards collective suicide. Among other themes not really good – and which have occasionally led Haneke to be accused of complacency towards the cruelty that he exemplifies – it is then the sadism that the filmmaker addresses in Funny Games (a thriller in which some detect the ancestor of torture porn), the violence of incommunicability in Unknown code then that of individual neurosis through The Pianist.
Powerful leitmotif in Haneke’s work, the illustration of evil is also a mainspring of White Ribbon, awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2009. We observe with fear and incomprehension the rigor of Lutheran education, in a small village in North Germany, on the eve of the First World War. So not to watch in the company of small children.
Never ask for whom the death knell tolls
In a fairly new way in Haneke’s work, Love does not introduce any “bad guys”. No torturer in white gloves, no armed maniac to perpetrate a mass massacre. No, because in Love, the responsibility is not on the side of individuals but of existence itself. And it is undoubtedly in this that this film constitutes the harshest and most unbearable play of the director.
Where few were those who could identify with the victims of a sadistic tandem (Funny Games) or the pangs of sexual frustration (The Pianist), everyone can recognize themselves through the protagonists ofLove. To see a mother wither away, a soul mate become bedridden. To observe, helplessly, the downfall of a loved one. This is the disastrous “common lot” that Haneke has decided to bring to the big screen.
This despite the fact that an artistic taboo hovers around “great age”. And that a scenario dealing with old age, illness and death all at once is not really conducive to attracting crowds. Never perhaps in the cinema had these themes been approached with so little pathos. The result is a work of unheard-of violence, the subject of which touches on the most banal drama at the same time as the most tragic of human beings. Arguably Haneke’s toughest creation. But the most overwhelming, too.
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Is love the hardest of Haneke’s films?