Jean-Louis Tintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 19 Dec 2012 (Limited release); UK theatrical: 16 Nov 2012 (General release); 2011)
For anyone who’s ever lived with a sick, or more tragically, dying loved one, Amour will hit close to home…perhaps too close to home. It’s a heartbreaking indictment of the limits of love, a look at how one aging couple, complementary in how they have interacted before, come apart upon the arrival of an unexpected terminal illness. For music teachers Anne (the startling Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) octogenarian life is a series of concerts, critical references, and visits from now famous disciples. It’s a routine…a rut even. They have clearly earned the kind of goodwill, and significant income, to keep their French apartment well appointed and their daily needs firmly met.
Then Anne becomes absent minded. Then she suffers from blackouts. She has an operation, but it is unsuccessful. Before long, she has suffered a stroke, has become partially paralyzed, and now requires in-home nursing care to get through the day. This makes Georges uneasy (he doesn’t like outsiders intruding in his personal space or business) and defiant daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) angry. She doesn’t think her father is doing enough for her disconnected invalid mother. Nurses comes and go and Anne grows worse. Georges tries to maintain some manner of normalcy, but the disturbing sounds of near-death coming from his bedroom set things on edge. Eventually, his grip on reality starts to shrink as well. Locked up in his house, the curtains drawn, he just can’t escape the wounded wails wafting down his now dark halls.
If it sounds like Amour is a two hour trek through one man’s misery, you’d be right. Director Michael Haneke, who won kudos (and a couple of Cannes Film Festival prizes) for his work on such films as Funny Games and The White Ribbon, again delves into a situation with a simple in point, but no clear exit strategy. For Anne and Georges, the situation is typical - old couple, many years together, one partner fading out before the other is ready. How Haneke gets to his conclusion is chilling. It’s also clinical and a bit distant. But it’s indeed spot on. No one wants to consider the mortality of the person they’ve pledged themselves to. They don’t want to contemplate a world without them, let alone any significant time apart. In his denial, Georges acts according to the standard script. When things get more horrific, however, his deviation speaks volumes.
It’s the secret at the core of Amour, the eventual outcome hinted at during the opening sequence and shown clearly at the end. As much as Anne is the focus, she becomes a fixture in this film rather quickly. She’s the monster in the closet, the moaning demon determined to deaden your soul as she calls out for relief. The more amazing moments here happen between Georges and his daughter, Eva. Both Trintignant and Huppert are exhilarating in these scenes, capturing truths most of us pray we never see. She is hurt. He is destroyed but must keep up appearances for his child. She scolds him. He responds back in equally hurtful couplets. Before long, they are at a standstill, stuck in that proverbial place where we don’t want to give up and yet find it pointless to do anything but. When Eva storms out, leaving her dad demoralized, it hints at the conclusions he will eventually reach.
Indeed, Amour makes it clear that love is not enough - strike that, that it can never be enough. We don’t build our lives on the fairytale of “Happy Ever After.” Instead, we shuffle through a series of crisis, knowing full well that we will survive most of them, while cursing the god or gods who force such failings on us. In fact, Haneke is illustrating the other part of that tired old adage - can love be strong enough to overcome such hurdles…and the answer, sadly, puts the final nail in the maxim’s coffin. It’s safe to say that Amour mocks those who believe in their own inner strength during moments of meaningful despair. Instead, the result is something more sobering, like a link to the five stages circa Elizabeth Kubler-Ross without the psychological certification. Truth be told, this film could be a supplement to said theory, arguing for a whole new process of pre-grieving.
And that’s really what this movie is about - pre-grief. It’s that moment when you realize someone you care about passionately and deeply is never coming back - at least not in the way you remember. It’s a cautionary tale about what we take for granted, and what we do when said guarantee up and walks away. Georges’ reaction may seem extreme in the end, but it’s also understandable. Who wants to see anyone in pain, especially someone who’ve devoted your whole life to? More probing is the point where Anne becomes non-human. We see some of her previous personality in the film’s first half. But by the time she is bedridden and bellowing like a wounded banshee, she’s become completely alien. It’s like science fiction of the sickly. Reaction then becomes the film’s key ingredient. Most time, her painful pleas are ignored. In other instances…
All of which makes Amour all the more painful to endure. For those of us who’ve lived through similar circumstances, the mirror the movie holds up to us is horrific in its accuracy. We’ve all felt like this, been disgusted by our reactions and rationale for same. Just like Georges, we’ve cried out in silent anguish, wondering “Why?” Of course, there is never a good answer, or an even available one. Amour may not inspire the kind of emotional epiphany that similar illness-driven dramas tend to, but the results are still riveting. Haneke may be forgiven for his agenda-like abstractions, but in this case, his message is loud and uncomfortable clear