"Amour" Strikes A Deeply Melancholic Chord

I’d imagine that “Amour” was as challenging to make as it is to watch, and the experience of the film itself is a test of emotional endurance. I can’t fathom what it was like to face the material on a day-to-day basis during a month-long shoot. Writer-director Michael Haneke has created his own cinematic world here, not far removed from our own, in which the mundane happenings of life are cruelly interrupted by a drawn-out illness, the substantial amount of care required to sustain life, and eventually, the bluntness of death.

From the opening scene we know how the story ends, but Haneke aggressively avoids the path of least resistance, taking the most gravelly, mountainous pass at every opportunity. “Amour” is a rebuke of the fairy tale version of love, the notion that everything works out in the end, and in its insistence that the old “love takes work” cliché is a bit of an understatement, the picture will leave many viewers exhausted, distraught, or both. But it does exactly what it sets out to do, expertly weaving together the monotony of everyday life, the nauseating horror of mortality, and the most esoteric corners of the human mind.

Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are an elderly couple living comfortably in Paris, France, occasionally visited by their self-centered daughter (Isabelle Huppert) who’s living abroad with her family. Although long retired, both Georges and Anne maintain a deep interest in music. An early scene shows the couple in a crowded theater enjoying the music of an offscreen pianist. It’s a wide shot that lingers long enough to allow viewers to get caught up in their own thoughts – perhaps about the film’s eerie opening, or the blank expressions on the faces of the concertgoers, or the increasing reverb of the piano’s notes, bouncing around the theater, onscreen and off.

While at home, Georges and Anne share a conversation they’ve likely had a thousand times before. But this one is different. This one goes bad. As Georges goes on, Anne becomes completely unresponsive, as if in a daze for minutes on end. When she finally comes to, she has no recollection of the exchange or what happened in the interim. A doctor confirms a serious medical problem and Anne begins to deteriorate. At first, it’s only mental lapses. Georges is allowed maintain some of his old routine. But as the film goes on, Anne becomes more and more incapacitated and indicates that she no longer wants to live.

The couple’s romance, as effortless and sweet as it might have been decades ago, becomes as unwieldy as a literal ball and chain. That’s not to say it’s any more of a burden on Georges than it is Anne – in fact, it’s probably the other way around. But the unrelenting pain is evident in both their faces, and the way Trintignant plays his character is a perfect mix of internal and external conflict. Riva, on the other hand, is taxed with the physical transformation of a dying woman, and her commitment to the role is commendable.

The final twenty minutes of the film will draw widely varied reactions from different audience members. Some will sympathize with the way Georges deals with his increasingly desperate plight. Others will dismiss Haneke’s plot machinations as needlessly macabre. Ultimately, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, making the ambiguity of the final scene even more haunting. The entirety of the piece can be viewed through one of several lenses – romance, horror, drama – or all at once. The triumph of the film is that there are no wrong answers. The only false step would be watching the film unprepared for the emotions it’s certain to stir.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: December 19, 2012 (Limited)
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Director: Michael Haneke
Screenwriter: Michael Haneke
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language)