A film review by Craig J. Koban February 19, 2013

AMOUR jjj
 

2012, R, 128 mins.

 

Anne: Emmanuelle Riva / Georges: Jean-Louis Trintignant / Eva: Isabelle Huppert / Geoff: William Shimell / 

Written and directed by Michael Haneke

In French and English, with English subtitles

Austrian filmmaker Michael Hanekeís AMOUR literally translates, obviously enough, to ďloveĒ and itís a rare film that tackles a story about two people wholeheartedly devoted to each other in the winter of their respective lives.  

The film achieves a decidedly thorny dichotomy.  Itís both heart-warming and uplifting in the sense that it shows how the power of love between two life-long soul mates is not impeded by any roadblock.  On the other hand, AMOUR achieves a level of melancholy and sad tragedy in the way its shows how man and wife suffer together when one becomes sicker and sicker by the day and methodically approaches death without much hope for a future.  So many films have chronicled young love, so itís inspiring and refreshing to see a film like AMOUR take a look at elderly love with a rather haunting and unflinching eye. 

The opening of the film is kind of discretely masterful: The camera careens through a vast Parisian apartment as firemen break through the front entrance and proceed through what appears to be an unoccupied dwelling.  One of the firemen Ė as he continues to walk through the eerily quiet surroundings Ė begins to put his hand up to his nose and mouth, obviously relaying that something odious is polluting the air in the apartment.  Oddly enough, thereís no smoke or fire in the home.  Almost unavoidably, the men come to a bedroom door that has been sealed with duct tape.  Inside they find an old woman, apparently dead for a while, that is perfectly positioned as if in a funeral coffin; flowers are artfully scattered around her well groomed corpse. 

The story then flashes back to an aging couple that lives there, former musicians now retired, Georges and Anne (played in two of the most authentically drawn performances of the year by Jean Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva respectively).   Their married life is one of relatively normalcy; they enjoy reading, nights out to concerts, and casual relaxation, which is relayed in the filmís leisurely opening sections.  One morning changes everything: The two are having breakfast and just as George is about to enjoy is hard-boiled egg Anne becomes totally unresponsive, almost in a comatose state while awake.  A few minutes later she comes to as if nothing has happened.  Itís later revealed that she suffered a stroke, and George takes her to the doctor, after which they recommend surgery to prevent future and more debilitating strokes.  Unfortunately, Anne is in the small five per cent category where surgery proves unsuccessful.  

 

 

Anne does indeed suffer another stroke, which proves to be more devastating, paralyzing one side of her body.  Initially, she still can cogently communicate and do basic tasks, but the more days pass the worse her condition becomes.  She also becomes more reliant on her husband, which angers her to no end (she pleads with him to swear to her that she will never be taken back to a hospital to die, which he begrudgingly agrees to).  Georges, showing total steadfast devotion to his wife, caters to her every need, as she gets progressively worse.  Unavoidably, Anne sheepishly expresses a desire to dire, but Georges wonít relent to her dying wishes, even when the daily ordeal of caring for her is beginning to take its own emotional and physical toil on him as well. 

Riva and Trintignant have been staples in French cinema for countless decades, the latter being an instrumental performer during the French New Wave in the 1960ís.  They both are in the same boat as their characters: sheís 85 and heís 82 and their prime years are all but faded memories.  Whatís great about the film and their performances is that we get a deeply intimate and oftentimes harshly candid look at the day-to-day hardships of this couple.  So many films over the years have given us elderly characters that border on crude caricature, but here we get old people that are smart, articulate, and cultured, which makes the ongoing sight of seeing one of them surrender more deeply to their illness all the more distressing. 

Riva became the oldest person ever to be nominated for an Oscar for her work here, and she certainly deserved it.  Kind of like her fellow nominee Naomi Watts in THE IMPOSSIBLE, Riva has to convey a wellspring of conflicting emotions with subtle gestures and facial expressions while lying mostly motionless in bed.  She has to not only show a woman in steady physical decline, but also has to relay a woman thatís unwaveringly strong, yet fragile and vulnerable in her state.  Her thespian partner got no love from the Academy, as he should have, because Trintignant is the second performance anchor in the film: He makes Georges a brave, intrepid, and headstrong man that will not bow down to the arduous daily pressures of looking after his wife, but nonetheless is finding his patience and strength wavering as well.  Thereís not a hint of dishonesty in Riva and Trintignantís work here; they create a credible married couple with a long-standing history through and through. 

I have been very tough on Haneke in the past.  His FUNNY GAMES (which was a needless remake of his own 1997 film) was given a dreaded zero star rating by me and placed at the very top of the heap as the worst film of 2008.  I found that film artistically arrogant, pretentious, and offensively manipulative, which was not at all assisted by the directorís austere and coldly clinical style.  AMOUR is certainly a much more inviting film in the sense that the performances help ground the film in a world that most filmgoers can relate to in one form or another.  Hanekeís style is almost like the antithesis to contemporary filmmaking conventions.  He lets his camera linger on his subjects for minutes on end and makes very little usage of camera pans or quick cuts.  Itís a very sparse, economical, and precise manner of given us a sense that we are eavesdropping on Georges and Anne, which only helps to accentuate their isolation from the rest of the world and the bleakness of their situation.  The cinematography of Darius Khondji Ė which makes their apartment almost an ageless character in itself Ė compliments everything nicely as well. 

Yet, itís Hanekeís formal directorial precision that almost is a fault in the film as well.  His style is almost so cold, calculated and emotionally remote at times that it distractingly calls attention to itself when we should be more drawn to the coupleís story.  The film is also extremely slow moving at times to the point of it coming off as an numbing test of our collective patience.  There are times when Haneke spends an unfathomable amount of time on shots and sequences that do almost nothing to propel the story forward (a sequence, for example, that has George trying to capture a stray pigeon in his apartment seems to literally go on forever, as is a sequence that has he trimming flowers in a sink).  Paradoxically, there are times when the film felt like it was inviting me in only to frustrate and push me away later. 

As a result, AMOUR is definitely not an easy film to process and sit through: itís frequently unpleasant and uncomfortable to engage in, which is a bit of the point, I guess, of seeing Anne and George at the best and worst times of their last days with one another.  Itís an insularly film about a hard-hitting subject matter.  Haneke has claimed that the story here is based on an identical situation that happened to his own family, which is odd seeing how unfeelingly analytical his shooting style and focus is here.  Yet, it is Riva and Trintignantís soft spoken, tender, earnest, and unendingly genuine performances that will linger within me the most. 

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