Do us part
Focus on love and dying in Oscar-nominated foreign film
Amour, the French-language film from Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke (Caché, The Piano Teacher, The White Ribbon, etc.), comes to us with an armload of awards already won (including a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film and the top prize from the Cannes Film Festival) and five Oscar nominations including both Best Picture and Best Foreign Film.
All those honors are well-deserved, I think, but local audiences may be somewhat surprised to find that this multi-prize-winner is actually a rather small picture, a two-character drama that takes place mostly inside a nicely appointed apartment in Paris. And if there’s a largeness of theme operating in that intimate setting, it too sounds rather daunting—the two characters are an elderly married couple, a pair of retired music teachers, with husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tending to wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) in the aftermath of two strokes, the second of which brings rapidly advancing physical debilitation with it.
It’s not a happy situation, which of course is very much to the point, as is almost always the case in a Haneke film. But part of what is distinctive about Amour is that it deals with its grim subject matter in a manner that is both brutally frank and (somewhat surprisingly in a Haneke film) gentle and compassionate. The film’s tenderness never indulges in sentimentality and seems all the more genuine for it.
It helps, and heightens the emotional stakes as well, that Georges and Anne are played by two icons of the European art film. Riva was the chief character in Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), and Trintignant has had a number of especially memorable roles in The Conformist, Z, and (most crucially for the current film) A Man and a Woman. (And, more recently, each actor played an elderly character in separate episodes of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors trilogy.)
Even if you aren’t familiar with those earlier films, there’s something both eerie and touching in the spectacle of these two stars from another time, both of them in their 80s, navigating these roles with their aged selves fully in view. And while there’s a haunting bit of documentary realism in all that, both also deliver performances fully in tune with the tough-minded delicacy of the film as a whole.
Plus, as its title should remind us, Amour is also a love story, albeit one that is not conventionally “romantic.” The film lets us feel that in a number of sidelong ways—in the solicitude of stoical Georges toward Anne, in her tender and tenacious dignity, and in the deeply felt and markedly unsentimental rapport between the two of them.
And Haneke’s non-chronological approach to their story (the end comes at the beginning, etc.) brings a haunting sort of low-key poetry to the proceedings. Dream, reality and hallucination are woven together, inside the movie and out.