As the living epitome of an austere "European" sensibility that's led to heartfelt and harrowing masterpieces from The Piano Teacher to The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke's won acclaim for his oeuvre, and even some American name-recognition among more serious cinephiles. His latest, Love, is both a departure from and a representation of his work to date, an intimate tale of two long-married 80-somethings in the twilight of their years, facing the challenge of what happens when the light begins dipping irreversibly to darkness. The box office will be limited to the arthouse circuit, even if well-deserved awards attention comes to the two leads Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuel Riva; nonetheless, audiences smart and tough enough to seek the film out will have their own reward.
Riva and Trintignant are Anne and Georges, retired music teachers in Paris. Their days are taken up with walks and conversations, their evenings with the occasional show by one of their pupils; now and then their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) drops by in during the quieter moments of her busy life. One morning, though, Anne simply stares into space: unresponsive, blank, unmoving. And snaps out of it a few minutes later, thinking nothing happened. Georges, shaken, takes her to the hospital. And it isn't nothing.
With its long takes, diegetic music and intimacy (only one scene takes place outside of the two's elegant, well-appointed flat), Love's emotional impact builds like snowflakes to the avalanche; Anne doesn't fall into illness swiftly but slowly and irreversibly, with Georges trying to respect Anne's wishes ("Please," she implores, "don't take me to the hospital ever again ..."). Both Trinitgnant and Riva are excellent, performing complex scenes that unfold with the ebb and flow of life, scenes that evidently posed the actors emotional and physical challenges. And even with all that, the two convey the sense of a lived-in, long-standing love and marriage.
The camerawork is also sublime, from the opening tracking shot that unreels like a bad dream, to the smaller choices of where to shoot and when to cut. The cinematography, by the esteemed Darius Khondji (Seven, Midnight in Paris), framed in a sumptuous 1.85:1, keeps the flat from ever feeling too claustrophobic, even as you notice small signs of the passage of time, like mold beneath a wallpaper or dust on a grand piano.
Author Jeffery Myers called George Orwell "the wintry conscience of a generation," and it's a phrase that could be applied to Haneke, as well. Love is hardly cold, but, the finale of the film is as unthinkable as it is understandable, an act of brutal grace that, like it or not, is far closer to reality than some Hallmark-level sentimentality or sudden cheap reversal that might let the audience leave on an "up note." Gorgeous and haunting, heartfelt and immensely thought-out, Haneke's latest is hardly his masterpiece, but merely by seeing and showing what most directors can't or won't, it's head and shoulders above the vast majority of dramas in the field, with the stark and startling vision that perspective allows.
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuel Riva, Isabelle Huppert, William Shimell
Director/Screenwriter: Michael Haneke
Producers: Margaret Ménégoz
Running time: 125 min.
Release date: TBD