Austrian director Michael Haneke's Amour confronts the one unavoidable truth about life: It ends.
European film icons Emmanuelle Riva (who debuted in Alain Resnais' 1959 film Hiroshima, Mon Amour) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (leading man for filmmakers such as Claude Chabrol, Eric Rohmer, and Bernardo Bertolucci) are Anne and Georges Laurent, retired music teachers who live together in a tasteful, comfortable Paris apartment. They're sometimes visited by their prickly daughter Eva (Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert) and sometimes go out to a concert, but mostly they stick to each other, their routines marked with familiarity and affection.
But this happy life is disrupted when Anne goes blank at the breakfast table, staring into space, oblivious to the initially irritated then worried voice of Georges. She snaps out of it, but it's the first sign of an irrevocable decline, a stroke that paralyzes the right side of her body. An operation fails, and she has Georges promise to never send her to a hospital again. Whatever fate awaits, it will happen in this apartment.
Amour arrives in Memphis this week with a weighty pedigree. It won the Palme d'Or — top prize — at last year's Cannes Film Festival and was anointed a few weeks ago with five-count-'em-five Oscar nominations, not only for Best Foreign Language Film, which was expected, but also for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (Haneke both), and Best Actress for Riva, who, at 85, became the oldest nominee ever in that category. The last time a non-English-language Cannes winner was this embraced by the Academy was never. (La Dolce Vita came close, with four nominations in 1960.)
Haneke isn't unknown to adventurous local filmgoers. His three most recent films, 2009's The White Ribbon, 2007's Funny Games, and 2005's brilliant Caché (Hidden) received local theatrical releases. But Amour is destined for a much bigger audience.
On the surface, Amour seems like the kind of foreign-language film that typically gets Oscar attention, but it really isn't. Rather than reach for any emotional crescendo or attempt to wring tears from or offer comfort to its audience, Haneke's portrait of this couple's final journey is a rigorously unsentimental film. Compassionate, but candid and very clear-eyed.
Haneke, a provocateur by nature, seeks to unsettle the audience from the outset. The opening shot is positioned as a near-literal assault on the viewer. The first scene after the film's flash-forward set-up positions the audience, soon to be voyeurs of something intensely private, in a vulnerable state of being watched.
The film begins and ends with outsiders entering the Laurents' apartment, with most of the action in between taking place within its confines, which Haneke films in long, slow takes and precisely framed medium shots. You may be taken aback by the film's sense of detachment, but the reserved seriousness of the film helps it linger.
In Haneke's unyielding vision, love is work: It's Georges exercising Anne's legs to ward off atrophy. It's terse, stern talks with careless caregivers and prying relatives. It's Georges' act of lifting Anne from the bathroom and maneuvering her to the bedroom, which seems akin to a dance, a literal labor of love. And sometimes, love is cruel, as when Georges helplessly slaps Anne in anger when her refusal of water seems a suicide attempt. Or when he takes another action you can barely watch. Riva has gotten the accolades here, but Trintignant's work is perhaps even more important. In truth, the performances blend, and Haneke bestows upon this couple a farewell worthy of their achievement and the film's title claim.
Opening Friday, February 15th