Be careful what you wish for, we are often warned: You might just get it. And in these pages, this reviewer has oft been found wishing for more serious movies for grownups. Well, I got that in spades, in the form of Michael Haneke’s Amour.
“Love” may be both title and subject of this French/German/Austrian film production, but it’s the tough, unsentimental kind of love that, from the outside, can look more like duty than affection. Onscreen, that makes for a grim, slow, two-hour slog through a reality that many of us already know all too well – the incapacitation and final decline of an aging family member – leavened only by some of the most superb acting imaginable by two great stars of French cinema.
The Austrian Haneke is best-known in this country for his 2001 film The Piano Teacher, and two elderly retired piano teachers form the tight constellation of Amour. We first meet Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) at a recital by one of Anne’s most successful former students (Alexandre Tharaud, playing himself). They return to their large, shabbily genteel Paris apartment, and over breakfast the next morning Anne goes blank, as if having an absence seizure. It turns out to have been a stroke, and the rest of the movie follows her inexorable loss of function and Georges’s dogged efforts to cope.
If you’re sick of Hollywood action flicks with jagged editing, loud explosions and chases, Amour may be right up your alley; but my guess is that mainstream audiences will be turned off by the deliberately tedious pacing of this film. Much of the narrative seems to unfold in real time, illuminating the magnitude of the burden that Georges has taken upon himself in promising his wife not to send her back to a hospital after an attempt to correct her arterial blockage with surgery has failed.
The role of Georges was created with 82-year-old Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, Z, My Night at Maud’s, The Conformist) in mind, luring him back after a 14-year hiatus from the silver screen. It’s a remarkable performance, especially considering the physical demands of the part. The viewer is led step-by-step, lift-by-lift, through the grueling processes of caring for a partially paralyzed woman. Although Georges is not a demonstrative character, his tenderness shines through in scenes where the couple almost appear to be dancing as he raises Anne off the toilet or lowers her into her wheelchair.
For her part, although depressed about her rapidly deteriorating mobility, Anne has her moments where we can see what a feisty customer she must have been in her youth. Or perhaps it is only now, knowing how little time she has left, that she is able to cut to the chase and ask for what she wants when she wants it, gentility be damned. In the middle of a dinner she loses interest in the food and demands that Georges dig out the family photo albums and bring them to her at once. Her husband seems a little put out, but complies; his reward is the rapturous way in which Anne exclaims, “Beau!” over the pictures. When he asks what’s so beautiful, she answers, “Life. A long life.”
There are not many moments of such happiness after that, and we see Georges become physically depleted himself, moving more stiffly, as Anne becomes incontinent, bedridden and eventually incoherent. Experiments with bringing in nursing help do not go well, and the couple become increasingly isolated in their own remote little universe, interrupted only by a few visits from their baffled daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert).
Since Amour opens with the discovery by neighbors of Anne’s corpse, bedecked with flowers, we know all along that there is no deus ex machina, no cavalry charge that can save this beleaguered pair from their fate. What keep the film from being a total downer are the world-class performances by the two leads. Over 50 years have elapsed since Riva became an icon of the early Nouvelle Vague starring in Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour, and American audiences have been exposed to little of her subsequent work, but the role of Anne will cement her in our collective memory for sure – even if she doesn’t cop the Best Actress Oscar as the oldest-ever nominee.
Deathbed scenes, long or short, seem to bring out the best or the worst in an actor. It’s so easy to go over the line and expire too histrionically, and directors (or art directors) sometimes want you to die all too prettily to be believed. On the other hand, you can’t be so subtle that the audience entirely misses the moment of transition. But done well, dying onscreen can crown a career.
I can’t recall a performance that captured extreme disability this exquisitely since Bruce Davison portrayed Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man on Broadway in 1979, sans makeup or prostheses. In Amour, Riva works some sort of magic that turns Anne before our eyes from elegant Paris doyenne to a twisted, tormented creature regressing into a helpless, infantile state. She will break your heart; and if you’ve had to endure your own mother or wife’s slow dying, she will break it twice over.