January 21, 2013

MOVIES: Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)

We are all going to die. Very rarely does a movie bring that point home quite so bluntly or clearly as Michael Haneke's Amour, a bracing antidote to the "aren't old people adorable?" crap that Hollywood likes to serve up.

Virtually the entire movie is spent inside the apartment of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), retired piano teachers in their eighties. They are utterly devoted to one another -- Georges still takes the time to tell Anne that she looks pretty as they return from a concert -- and have made a happy and comfortable life for themselves.

And then Anne has a stroke -- not a spoiler; this is in the first ten minutes of the movie -- and everything changes. Her health begins to deteriorate, and Georges is forced to become her nurse and caretaker. He's more than willing to accept that responsibility, but even at the beginning, it's clear that he's only just able to manage things like helping Anne in and out of her wheelchair. If she gets any sicker, or if his own health gets any worse as he ages, they won't be able to manage.

As we get ever closer to the inevitable, Georges and Anne find their relationship pushed to its limits. How far will we go -- how far can we go -- for those we love? And as we explore the depths of their love, and the ways in which it is shaped by patience and frustration, by anger and joy, by courage and cowardice, we realize that for all of its focus on death, the movie is deservedly called Amour and not Mort.

The two central performances are superb. Riva's Oscar nomination is entirely deserved, and she does an extraordinary job of capturing not only Anne's physical and mental deterioration, but the horrible anguish of watching herself go through this. Trintignant is every bit her equal, and is particularly compelling in scenes with their daughter (a lovely supporting performance from Isabelle Huppert), explaining with a lack of sentiment that borders on cruelty that there is nothing she can do to help.

Haneke occasionally gives in to his penchant for heavy-handed symbolism -- there's a pigeon that keeps flying into the apartment through an open window -- but there's less of that here than is usual for him. The claustrophobia of the single setting serves the movie well, reinforcing the themes of confinement and escape. Amour is, as always with Haneke, a clear-eyed and somewhat chilly telling of a story; what seems new (at least in my experience with Haneke) is the kindness with which he views these people.

Amour is both completely unsentimental and deeply compassionate, and it should not be missed.

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