Near the end of Terrence Davies’s gorgeously shot The Deep Blue Sea, Rachel Weisz’s landlady suggests to her lovelorn tenant that love, in the long run, is about wiping your partner’s butt till the bitter end. That pretty much sums up the premise of cinema’s favorite misanthrope Michael Haneke’s new film, Amour. But don’t be fooled by the title because it is unlikely you’ll feel warm and fuzzy after you watched this Palme d’Or winner.
Any semi-serious cinephile will be delighted to see two beloved icons of French cinema, Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima mon amour) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (Z, The Comformist), headline a major film in their golden years. They play a loving old couple who is self-sufficient and aging gracefully in their elegant Parisian apartment. For those of you who are familiar Haneke the Scrooge, I assure that the happy times won’t last more than fifteen minutes as Riva’s Anne suffers a stroke that has rendered her partially paralyzed. Along with the physical hardships comes the loss of dignity that causes her to see herself as little more than a burden to Trintignant’s Georges. The former piano teacher cannot play her instrument anymore, nor can she walk and bathe herself. Gutted by her painful reality, she makes her husband promise her that he will never admit her to a hospital again even though their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert, in a brief but welcoming appearance) has pleaded otherwise.
Haneke’s films, at their most divisive, are unrelentingly cynical (e.g., both versions of Funny Games). Amour is the Austrian filmmaker’s gentlest film in comparison to his many grim tales on human nature. The progression of the protagonists’ demise in Amour is one of pragmatic concerns, in lieu of his usual preference for the ideologically driven. Much of the film is devoted to the couple’s attempt to adjust their daily routine in accordance to Anne’s declining health. We see Georges cutting Anne’s food at the dinner table, Anne trying to read a book with one hand and other mundane activities inside their home. Haneke’s matter-of-fact presentation eschews judgment and invites the audience to be empathic towards the characters’ choices and actions, regardless of their ramifications. I find his films are at their best when he leaves room for grey area, which is what attracted me to his masterful Code Unknown in the first place and has brought me back for more punishing life lessons with each passing film.
Since the film begins with the story’s ending, Haneke has made it clear that he is not interested in shock tactics this time around. Instead, he leaves us with a pigeon, which perhaps could be a metaphor for the frailty of life, among other things. The scarce moments of tenderness in Amour, though fleeting, are cherishable. His refusal to dwell in sentimentality is vital to the scenes where Anne is flipping through a photo album of their better years, or when the couple is visited by Anne’s adoring student (played by pianist Alexandre Tharaud). Even at the age of 82 and 85, Trintignant and Riva are still titans of the silver screen. The French leading man masterfully provides nuance for a role that is marked by its quiet introspection. Riva, on the other hand, has a more physically demanding role to tackle. Her fearless performance is a great example of how physicality could be just as crucial as talent in the art of acting. For instance, when Trintignant’s Georges helps Riva’s Anne exercise her bare legs, I am floored by the vulnerability she displays. The predicament of these characters is as real as it gets for the aging actors, whom I shall applaud for their bravery and dedication to their profession.
Amour opens at Landmark River Oaks Theatre on January 18, 2013.