Having heard that this film was the greatest thing to happen to humanity, obviously I had to see it. It won the Palme D'Or at Cannes and has been talked about and received little but acclaim for the past few months. It was also heralded as a big change of pace for finger-wagging director Michael Haneke, director of two versions of Funny Games, The White Ribbon, and Cache, as he was reputedly leaving the sadism behind for a touching and moving meditation on love. Well, permit me to disagree. The movie, while typically well-made, doesn't have much to offer, has symbolism that would cause eyes to roll elsewhere, and evinces Haneke's wish to grind our faces into suffering as much as any of his other films.
We open with a prologue in which the landlord and others break into the apartment of our couple to find the bedroom door lined with tape. People holding their noses tells us the apartment stinks. Breaking into the bedroom, they find the corpse of elderly woman Anne, flowers laid around her head. We now go back and have a shot of an audience settling in for a concert, and eventually spy our protagonists, Anne and Georges. This is kind of a Haneke thing as he, as in the final shot of Cache, likes to have big busy shots with one small element we are to focus on. The couple arrives home to find that someone has broken in, but nothing has been stolen. Methinks I hear the symbolism klaxon sounding! This is also reminiscent of the opening moments of Cache, in which a couple find their seemingly-secure sanctuary invaded.
The next morning Anne goes into a trance during breakfast, not responding to Georges. When she snaps out of it, she has no memory of it, then misses her cup when pouring her tea. Next thing we see, they're back from the hospital and she is paralyzed down her left side. We see Georges help her into a chair. She tries to make him promise never again to take her to the hospital. He now has to wheel her around the apartment and pull her bodily into bed. Their daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert, drops by and assuages her helplessness by chiding Georges for not doing more, to which he does not respond warmly.
SPOILERS > > >
One day Georges comes back to find Anne out of her chair, sitting on the floor by the open window. One of the few things I liked about the movie is the way it takes a few moments for you to realize that she tried to kill herself (and honestly, the message I walked away from the film was: if you have a stroke, kill yourself as soon as you can). Soon, she's worse. She loses the ability to speak. She becomes barely conscious. Georges endures the best he can, constantly speaking to her, feeding her, begrudgingly arranging nurses for her, firing poor nurses for her. It gets worse, worse, and worse.
< < < SPOILERS END
Now I'm not sure about you, but I myself was pretty well aware that having a series of strokes and slowly dying sucks. And I also knew that many committed couples go to heroic lengths, and endure great humiliations, to care for and ensure the comfort of their dying loved ones. So I'm not really sure I needed to see a well-acted, beautifully-made movie with little more to offer than that. This is why I say Haneke hasn't lost his flair for sadism (for our own good!) in that the film forces you, through long, unflinching shots, to stare at a woman being spoon-fed baby food, having water straws shoved into her unwilling mouth, making no bones about the fact that she is in mortal agony and wishes to die but cannot, and laying there repeatedly moaning "Mal!" which sounds like she's calling for her mother and is translated as "Hurts!" Of course it happens. Of course it's sad, tragic. Of course it's heart-rending. But: do we need to see it? I spent more time with eyes cast away from the screen than in a particularly tense horror movie because you know what? I know that suffering is horrible, and don't actually need to watch it unfold.
Also, on a philosophical level: Perhaps this kind of suffering is something that should be left to the unfortunate time when we will experience it in real life? Spike Lee says of Django Unchained: "Slavery is not a Sergio Leone Western." Well, life's decline and the great suffering it causes is not an acclaimed drama. We're all headed toward some medical suffering or caregiving as depicted here. Does it help to vicariously experience it now? Or should real suffering be experienced when it happens, and be what it is? Not "just like in the movies?"
Furthermore, the film is filled with obvious, banal symbolism that I don't think would be tolerated in a film that was less HYPER SUPER-DUPER SERIOUS. There's the break-in that opens the film, as well as a certain pigeon that comes in through the window, twice, representing the elusive grace of the spirit or whatever. There are also dreams, featuring more break-ins and intrusions, and at the end we aren't sure what is reality at all.
So Haneke is surely a very gifted and very skilled filmmaker. The points of his films are very valid. The thing is: who appointed him to be our moral judge? Who set him so high above all of us that he is in a position to cast down his disdain? This film is no less a judgement-fest than any of his others, in that we are forced to stare at the indignities of sickness and dying with an implicit tsk-tsk for wanting to look away, where before he wanted to shame us for wishing to see violence. In this film, I'm specifically referring to the length of the shots of the character's suffering, which go beyond merely conveying that suffering, into a sense that Haneke wants to force us to look at it, to the point that to becomes intrusive and turns the focus onto him and WHY he needs us to look at it. Given his past, and comments he has made about this film, it seems clear he once more has a lesson for us callous, ignorant fools to soak in.
But--is he talking to anyone who isn't already lining up to feel guilty? He remade Funny Games in America to take his judgement of film violence RIGHT to the very heart of it, but... did anyone in his supposed target audience go see it? Another thing to consider is that we know nothing about HIM, about HIS moral choices and judgements, while he has appointed himself the appalled moral scold to the masses... who don't see his films.
So I would just dial back the hype a bit. Sure thing, wonderfully made and acted. Haneke is certainly a very gifted filmmaker and is very much in control of his audience. But I think the acclaim this film is getting is responding more to the subject matter and the WISH to align oneself with the side of tenderness and devotion than the film itself . You are voting with your ticket that YOU are for love and devotion! That's great (it's also not too far off from a Speilbergian approach Haneke might look down upon). But let's not confuse that with a great film that offers insight and perspective you can't get in a magazine article. Degenerating and dying sucks, folks. Some people endure great humiliations and display heroic devotion. Being forced to watch their suffering does not make you a better person.
You should probably still see it just to decide for yourself.