'Amour' unflinching in facing some ugly truths
“Amour,” Michael Haneke's unflinching look at love and the effects of aging upon it, is what you might call a “difficult” movie.
Not difficult to understand, because what happens is easy enough to follow. Difficult to watch in places. It's also remarkably rewarding, a brilliantly acted movie that speaks to the heartbreak and frustration of decline and death.
It is no surprise that Haneke, the director of films such as “The White Ribbon” and “Funny Games,” spares all sentimentality. And there are some signature Haneke moments. What is notable is the compassion, albeit clear-eyed, almost-sterile, with which Haneke and his actors infuse the characters.
French film legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play Georges and Anne, an elderly couple living happily in a relatively posh, if somewhat dated, Paris apartment. They are retired music teachers of some note.
One day at breakfast, Anne simply zones out. She doesn't respond to Georges in any way, just stares ahead. When she finally snaps out of it, with no awareness of what's happened, she tries to pour tea but misses the cup.
A visit to the doctor leads to surgery, which leads to paralysis on her right side, confinement to a wheelchair and the determination never to return to the hospital. She pleads with Georges never to let that happen, to do what he must to prevent it. Georges is understandably reluctant to agree.
Anne continues to decline. Visits from their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) strain the unsteady peace Georges has tried to make with himself about the situation. Too involved with her own life to spend a lot of time worrying about someone else's, Eva does tell Georges of her concern.
To which he replies that her concern is of no use to him.
This, then, is love, Georges forsaking his own life and happiness to care for the woman to whom he has devoted everything and continues to. It is no longer romantic, it is no longer beautiful, it is, in fact, sometimes ugly and off-putting. And yet, Georges soldiers on.
Fittingly, almost all of the film takes place between just Georges and Anne in their apartment, because their lives have been narrowed down to this, two people whose souls are so intertwined that bringing down one brings down the other. There is no question that Georges will devote himself to Anne. The question is how fully.
Trintignant perfectly captures the resolve that eventually borders on obsession, as the woman he loves gradually, maddeningly, disappears before his eyes, and he does whatever he can to prevent it, though he knows it's impossible. He can see her, he can speak to her, but he can no longer reach her.
Riva, meanwhile, is astounding, not just in the way she portrays the physical manifestation of her decline, particularly later in the film, but also earlier, when she knows she is fading and does not wish to do so. The look in her eyes, the sadness in her face, is crushing.
And yet the lives they lived have led to this kind of devotion. The for-better-and-for-worse bit that is part of a married couple's vows? “Amour” takes that to the extreme, particularly the “worse” side of the equation. But we know that, for Georges and Anne, the “amour” of the title would not be possible if the “better” part hadn't been such a big part of their lives, too.
In French with subtitles.
Bill Goodykoontz is a movie critic for Gannett News Service.