Whether or not Michael Haneke’s unflinching new movie takes home any of the five Oscars for which it’s been nominated, there’s one distinction it totally has in the bag: Amour is hands down, far and away the feel bad film of the year.
Of the decade for that matter. The century. Quite possibly of all time. This is one brilliantly made bummer. Even the casting is pure genius. The final chapter in the love story of an elderly Parisian couple, the picture stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.
Seeing them now in their 80s is particularly poignant because we remember them so vividly in their youthful prime. He’s best known for A Man and a Woman (1966), she for Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959). They’ve been legends of the French cinema for half a century.
In an early scene Georges and Anne return to their apartment after attending a piano concert and find that someone has tried to break in. The lock on the door is damaged but nothing appears to have been stolen. It’s a subtle bit of foreboding on the part of the Austrian writer-director. In the morning the pair will realize how irrevocably they’ve been robbed.
As he shares breakfast with his wife, Georges is alarmed to discover she has suddenly lost the ability to respond. He waves his hands in front of her face but she gazes blankly. When Anne comes to just as suddenly, she has no memory of the episode.
Things go from weird to worse when doctors find a blockage in an artery and then botch the operation that’s supposed to remedy it. Far from improving things, the surgery leaves her paralyzed on one side, no longer able to walk.
And, adding insult to injury, unable to play the piano. Both Anne and Georges are retired musicians. Records line the walls of their living room. Stacks of stereo equipment and a grand piano testify to lives lived as citizens of the cultural world.
The filmmaker is sentiment-free in his study of Anne’s reaction: When Georges plays a new CD for her, she tells him to turn it off. Art, Haneke seems to suggest, is ultimately a luxury, a frill rendered irrelevant by sickness and death.
Amour is filled with brutal truths like that. If it weren’t the only movie ever made about what physical shut down looks and feels like, it would certainly be the most honest. And that’s exactly what he proceeds to give us. Anne’s condition deteriorates to the point at which she can neither walk or talk. Georges is instructed in the proper way to put adult diapers on her and where to apply creams to prevent bed soars. As we watch him wash her hair in the bathroom, we realize we’re witnessing an expression of deep devotion, one of the final physical acts of love this man and woman will be permitted to share.
If you know Haneke’s work—meticulously composed ruminations on human nature like The White Ribbon, The Piano Teacher and Cache—you know uncontrollable impulses and violence often lurk beneath the surface of the most civilized situations and that is the case even behind the closed doors of this well appointed Paris apartment. Sometimes love means having to say you’ve never been more sorry.
The performances by both leads are devastating, Haneke’s direction masterful and imaginative and his screenplay a thing of terrible beauty. On Golden Pond this is not. The farthest thing from sweet sorrow imaginable, Amour gets real about the pain of parting in every sense of the word.