127 min., rated PG-13.
All films are manipulative in some way, but their effectiveness depends on not seeing the strings. Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke (2009's "The White Ribbon") has never been spineless or been known for light and airy storytelling. An austere approach and placing his characters at a chilly distance to broach social issues are part of his manipulation, but never in a wave-your-hands-at-the-audience sort of way (unless you count 2008's coldly effective "Funny Games," an American redux of his same-titled 1997 film). In "Amour," relatively his most wrenching and compassionate piece of work, this somber, intimate, and beautifully acted film painfully chronicles the subjects of aging and love at the end of one's life. Yes, it's a depressing bummer and almost too hushed and clinical in a way, however, one can't help but appreciate and admire the provocateur's unsparing intent in capturing an octogenarian couple coming to terms with their mortality.
Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are still happily married in their eighties, long retired from their careers as music teachers and now living alone in their Paris apartment. One morning after making her husband breakfast, she sits down, only to stare into space and become unresponsive. A moment later, she comes out of her catatonic phase but remembers nothing and remains confused. A trip to the hospital reveals that Anne suffered a stroke and is now paralyzed on her right side. Georges selflessly takes care of her and hires some help as well. Before losing mobility and her faculties, Anne tells her husband she doesn't want him doting her like a cripple, so that leaves Georges to make some decisions. They aren't getting any younger.
"Amour" never leaves that apartment complex with Anne and Georges, Haneke capturing the morose feelings and claustrophobia of death closing in on them. Pacing his film naturally like the mundane days of real life, Haneke holds long, unfussy, and seemingly meaningless takes (without any music score) that often just feel pretentious. It's almost like Haneke is punishing us for thinking aging is a walk in the park and forces us to feel Anne and Georges' lives slowing down. This allows us to just sit back and watch the disintegration of life, which is decidedly a tough sit. Even when we first meet them at a concert, we're treated to a still shot of the audience and never see the stage, having to pick out the couple in the packed house.
Veterans of French New Wave cinema, 85-year-old Riva and 82-year-old Trintignant never strike a false note with such authenticity and empathy as if they're not acting at all. Their unaffected, lived-in performances are tremendous and make the film worthwhile. As brilliantly portrayed by Riva, Anne's agony and suffering will truly break your heart. The fact that Georges eventually takes Anne into his own care without nurses shows his love and devotion for his wife, until one particularly crucial choice that is as tough as it is relieving. Other than the couple's grown daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), and their famous former student, Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), slipping in and out to visit, this is Anne and Georges' story.
Lately, there's been a resurgence of films about older folks ("The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel," "Hope Springs," "Robot & Frank," and the upcoming "Quartet"), and Haneke's is by far the least soft. The fact that its subject matter is so difficult will make it a hard sell and a bit of a slog to some viewers. Sure, the auteur titled his film "Love," but "Amour" never sentimentalizes or sugarcoats its material. It faces the inevitability of the final phases of life head on. It is, to be frank, an art-house drama, so it can be frustratingly slow and demanding, but it strikes a resounding emotional chord. While it's not the happiest of moviegoing experiences and requires patience, it needs to be experienced at least once.