Director: Michael Haneke
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell, Ramón Agirre
MPAA Rating: (for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language)
Running Time: 2:07
Release Date: 12/19/12 (limited); 1/11/13 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 18, 2012
Amour opens with a mystery. Within an attractive condominium, the fire and police departments discover something amiss. The smell is the first sign; the lead officer on the scene must cover his nose as he moves through the place opening windows. Then, in the main hall, there is a door that has been taped up around the edges. The other door leading into the room, like the front door of the flat, is locked.
Upon breaking through the lock, the men discover a serene but upsetting and completely expected sight: the body of woman, lying dead on the bed. Save for the effects of time, her corpse looks as if it has been treated with the respect of a mortician and the adoration of a loved one. Her body has been outfitted in a black dress; flowers surround her head.
At first, we imagine she organized this arrangement, but the other details—namely the one door, taped from the outside—don't add up to that conclusion. Instead, a sadder realization unfolds: Someone loved this woman enough to take the time to prepare her body but, for some reason, decided it was not wise to be around whenever the police might arrive. Unless, of course, that person is the one who called the police—in which case, the person determined to run.
It's a fascinating puzzle writer/director Michael Haneke has laid out, but what's more intriguing is the way he uses that setup and the dramatic irony it holds to continually subvert our expectations. The story behind the central tableau of the opening scene starts off completely mundane, shifts into a tale of pain and sadness, and ends on a note of horror mixed with tortured understanding.
Somewhere in the audience of a piano recital in a packed theater are Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva)—married and in their twilight years. They barely register at first, as the camera holds on an extended shot of everyone in attendance—faces in a crowd of regular people preparing to enjoy a familiar, communal pleasure. The pianist (Alexandre Tharaud) was once Anne's student, so she and her husband visit him backstage. They return home—the same apartment from the opening—and prepare for bed. They make a little small talk about their evening. Georges, kindly, compliments his wife's appearance at the concert. The easiness and affection they have with and for each other are tangible and endearing.
The first sign that something is amiss comes that night, as Georges notices that Anne is sitting up in bed, not looking at anything in particular. Nothing is wrong, she says. The next morning while eating breakfast, Anne stops talking and stares blankly at the wall; she does not respond to Georges' repeated addresses to her or his attempts to pat her down with a damp cloth. He leaves the room to dress and returns to find her once again aware but unable to remember anything that has happened in the last few minutes.
Anne, we learn, has suffered a stroke that has left the right side of her body partially paralyzed. Haneke's pacing is relaxed throughout the film, but the effects of her condition and the medical troubles she has after seem to move rapidly and with no forewarning. Anne warns her husband that her condition will only get worse. She knows it, and so does he. In skipping any kind of obvious transitions as her health deteriorates, Haneke gives a sense of the routine that emerges when one is confronted with the extended illness of a loved one. It is only partially about trips to the hospital and the diagnoses of doctors or the advice of nurses—none of which Haneke includes.
The real difficult and heartbreaking part here is the way the challenges Georges must confront become completely ordinary to him. Whether it's helping Anne into bed every night, lifting her from the toilet, helping her walk in a shuffling embrace that would be charming if weren't so wrenching, or, later, trying to convince and eventually force her to eat and drink, activities that Georges may have never considered before become—as heightened by Haneke's use of abbreviated time—commonplace.
The only distractions to his devotion to Anne come from their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who has always too many of her own problems to pay much attention to her parents (Georges addresses this fact bluntly but without malice: "You have your own life; leave us ours"), and the helpful husband of their building's concierge (Ramón Blanco), as well as the nurses who give him a little time to rest. He's never too distanced from what is happening in the bedroom where Anne soon spends her life—the cries of "Pain," the incoherent words, the weeping. "None of that deserves to be shown," Georges tells his daughter after she says she wants to visit her mother; after a while, Haneke seems to agree with him.
As little hope as there is in the film, Haneke does not wallow in misery. Much of this comes from the compassionate performances by Trintignant, whose Georges knows no limits to what he is willing to do to care for his wife, and Riva, whose portrayal of physical and mental decay is devastating. Amour neither wavers about the cold, hard reality of its scenario nor does it settle for an easily digestible conclusion. At some point, the promises Georges has made to Anne must outweigh the promises he's made to himself. It may be ugly, but it is love in its own way.
Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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