If you are among those who avoided seeing this film because you thought it would be relentlessly bleak you may want to think again—Amour is one of the most important and beautiful films of recent years. Writer-director Michael Haneke and actors Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant give us a powerful and unsentimental look at the demands of life, death, and love within an intimate universe constructed over long years of coupledom. Amour does indeed cast a cold eye on our shared mortality, but not without a vivifying and profound embrace of our shared humanity. Since we choose neither our coming into life nor our leaving it, it is a rare film that can goad us into considering the nature of our exit realistically yet without utter hopelessness or morbid despair.
Amour won many awards and prizes including the Palme D’Or at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film; Riva took several Best Actress awards (and should have won the Oscar), and Trintignant’s performance as her husband is an elegant match in masterfully calibrated emotional power. Music teachers of some stature Anne and Georges are now octogenarian, savoring the rich quiet joys of their cultured maturity and decades of marriage, when suddenly Anne’s health begins a sharp decline. Haneke’s vision of how each of them confronts and attempts to manage this ultimate challenge is simply and eloquently scripted, unhurried, open to each telling development and detail. The film is unsparing in its honesty, and like the venerable, worldly, good-humored couple it portrays, it is dogged in its determination to maintain its dignity and integrity, its hard-won sense of specific identity.
Central to Amour’s power are these great actors who give an astonishingly transparent, nuanced, ultimately revelatory duet performance. Trintignant, now 85, first attracted attention 59 years ago as the callow fellow seduced by Brigitte Bardot in …And God Created Woman before starring in the seminal ’60s films A Man and a Woman, The Easy Life, Z and The Conformist. Riva, 89, came to Cannes in 1959 as the nameless European in postwar Japan in Alain Resnais’ landmark Hiroshima Mon Amour. She and Trintignant, though never before in a film together, are fully convincing as a lifelong couple: enjoying playful badinage, anticipating each other’s wants, at times nodding in silence over a shared memory.
The onset of the illness is deceptively passive. One morning at breakfast Anne becomes unresponsive and mute. The stroke lasts only a matter of seconds and she seems to return to normal. But several weeks and one operation later, Anne returns to the apartment in a wheelchair, the right side of her body paralyzed. Everything that follows transpires entirely within the familiar enclosure of their lovely home, predictability more and more frequently accompanied by surprise. Together, they try to accept their diminished circumstance, cleaving to the quality that remains, until a second stroke erodes even more of her essence. Haneke shoots most sequences in a static frame with an inexorably watchful lens: we are forced to observe the details where, we are reminded, both evil and good reside.
Some have seen Haneke’s work as that of a stern, emotionally demanding, filmmaker—but no one can dispute his mastery of camera mood for psychological and emotional shadings. Here, even more resonantly than in The Piano Teacher (2001), Caché (2005), and the period epic The White Ribbon (2009), the auteur’s visual style is limpid, organic, palpably intimate. Rather than a cause for depression, Amour is a memorable portrait of love; it gives us the opportunity of peering candidly and with delicate care into the lives of two strangers, understanding them, and being enriched by the potent bond—recognizable but difficult to articulate—that great art forges among us. We come away from the cinematic experience as witnesses; we feel the truth of what we have seen and heard and, even as we may know in vivid dreams that we’re asleep, we are somehow changed. The realism here augments our conception of the term.
Though unflinching, even harrowing, this film offers something else, something more, something reviving. Perhaps Haneke is acknowledging that true love has a dimension that can outlast the lives of the lovers. Whatever his intent, the spell of this incandescent film will be for most viewers unforgettable. In the history of movies about death in human life—and about loving—Amour is certain to last a very long time.
by Hadley Hury