Austrian auteur Michael Haneke isn't known for his light touch, but rather for hard-hitting, award-winning gems like Hidden, Amour and The White Ribbon. So this French film may be as close as he'll get to making a comedy. Indeed, it's a witty exploration of family and societal dysfunction that sometimes borders on farcical. But it's also a story about people grappling with suicidal and murderous urges. And the wry performances of its superb cast make it jarringly unforgettable.
It's set in Calais, where Anne (Isabelle Huppert) runs the family construction business and lives with her forgetful father Georges (Jean-Louis Trintingnant), her doctor brother Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz and his shy wife Anais (Laura Verlinden). But Anne's slacker son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) is struggling in his role as company manager, especially in the wake of an accident on one of their building sites. And Thomas now needs to care for his 13-year-old daughter Eve (Fantine Harduin) from a previous marriage. Meanwhile, dark thoughts are swirling, as Eve is posting death-obsessed videos on social media, and George is planning a startling suicide attempt.
These are all complex, layered people who are so consumed by their own issues that they often fail to notice what's happening with the people around them. And this echoes the film's larger themes about the wealthy residents in this area who are trying to ignore the surging population of desperate immigrants amongst them. Haneke orchestrates all of this in his usual dryly involving way, but this time adds a playfulness amid the disturbing interaction. Huppert is particularly good at injecting a sardonic wit beneath Anne's glacial expressions. This is a woman who won't let anyone see how annoyed she is, weathering the bigger storm to proceed with both a company merger and her own engagement to her lawyer (Toby Jones).
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A striking look at a long-term relationship, this film is an antidote to those who are tired of shamelessly sweet depictions of retirees, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel or Hope Springs. Meanwhile, it's perhaps the most emotionally resonant film yet from Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, who specialises in crisp explorations of the darker side of humanity (see The White Ribbon or Cache). By contrast, this Cannes-winner is a clear-eyed drama about ageing that completely avoids manipulation and schmaltz, but is still deeply moving.
The story takes place largely in one apartment in Paris, where Georges and Anne (Trintignant and Riva) are enjoying their golden years. Then one night, after attending a concert by one of Anne's former piano students, she has a small seizure that's just the first step in a slide into partial paralysis. Georges is happy to care for her, and they still have moments of happiness. Even when their daughter (Huppert) barges in and tries to meddle with their decisions about the future. As Anne's condition deteriorates, Georges gets help from his neighbours (Agirre and Blanco) and a nurse (Franck). But he never feels that taking care of Anne is a burden.
Unsurprisingly, Haneke tells this story without even a hint of sentimentality. Even though the premise lends itself to big emotions, he keeps everything quietly authentic. The flat itself almost becomes a character in the story, with each outsider's arrival as a kind of invasion. Scenes are captured in his usual long, unbroken takes with no background music to tell us how to feel. Instead, we experience the situations along with Georges, and we understand why he takes such a practical approach, refusing to overdramatise even the most emotive events.
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