One of my most eagerly anticipated films to see has been Michael Haneke’s “Amour”. The 70-year-old Haneke is a director I’ve grown to admire even though I leave some of his films frustrated. He can seem infatuated with suffering and misery and his love for ambiguous endings can be testing. For example, after recently watching his 2005 film “Caché” I found myself growling at the open-ended finale. But soon after I found myself thinking more on the movie and what Haneke was going for. That’s when I really began to appreciate the film. Such is the case with several Michael Haneke pictures.
His latest movie is “Amour”, a French language drama that has blown critics away and garnered 6 Academy Award nominations. Haneke is no stranger to critical acclaim but make no mistake, he deserves every ounce of praise he has received for this stirring and often times devastating masterpiece. Like many of his pictures, it’s not a movie you can say you thoroughly enjoy watching. “Amour” deals with some depressing but very real subject matter and Haneke’s ability to express it all is astounding. He was able to get me so emotionally invested that I cared about every single thing I was seeing on the screen.
But the film would never work without its two phenomenal lead performances. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play Georges and Anne Laurent, a happily married couple, both in their eighties, living in Paris. We see some beautiful scenes of them together as they enjoy a night out at a concert and share conversations at the breakfast table. I instantly knew that these two people had been in love for a long time. But it’s at that breakfast table where Anne suddenly goes quiet and just stares straight ahead for several minutes. It turns out that she has what appears to be a stroke and after surgery she’s left paralyzed on her right side.
Georges brings Anne back home to take care of her and promises that he’ll never take her back to the hospital or send her to a hospice facility. This doesn’t sit well with their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) who has a few clashes with Georges over the decision. Sadly Anne’s condition worsens and Georges has to face the reality that his wife may not get better. This is difficult but reality-based stuff and the film never pulls any punches in dealing with it. We see the simplest of things become increasingly difficult for Anne and we see Georges right by her side through it all. We watch them go through something that so many others have experienced and that ability to relate is one thing that makes this such a powerful picture.
I hinted at the great performances by the two leads. Well with all due respect to every other female performance of 2012, and that includes Oscar front-runners Jennifer Lawrence and Jessica Chastain, no one gave a more stunning and committed performance than Emmanuelle Riva. She took my breath away. She gives this performance everything she has and that’s a key ingredient to making it work. There was never a moment in the film where I didn’t believe in what she was doing. And then there’s Trintignant who has a much different role but an equally essential and compelling one. He offers that same authenticity as Riva and for me watching him handle this material was a huge part of my experience.
I also have to take time to talk about Haneke’s technique. I loved how he opened the movie. We get one brief scene that sets the table for everything to come. In a sense Haneke shows his hand before playing his cards. But the true power of this film is in what follows and the opening scene allows us to put our focus where it should be. There’s also no musical score at all. This frees the movie from any potential emotional manipulation that music can sometimes bring. Haneke brings every ounce of his emotion from the characters. Now personally I would have liked a smart and subtle score but it’s absence does nothing to detract from the film.
You’ll also notice that almost the entire movie takes place inside their Paris apartment. With the exception of the early sequence where they go to a concert, we spend the entire time in the apartment with them. During that time I felt I knew their home as well as they did. I know where their living room is. I know how their kitchen is laid out. I know their foyer, their halls, their bathroom, and their bedroom. This did a couple of things for me. It gave me a sense of place but it also relays the confinement they now experience. Anna’s illness has restricted them to the apartment where they even depend on good neighbors to get their groceries for them. Haneke also uses his familiar technique of setting his camera and then watching things unfold. Often times he’ll extend his shots which force us to take in some of the painful moments while at other times enjoying and appreciating the peaceful ones. I found this to be very effective.
And then you have the ending. As I mentioned in the first paragraph, anyone familiar with a Michael Haneke picture has to be prepared for the ending. Sometimes they’re nice and tidy but other times they can be abrupt and ambiguous. In “Amour” he ends it just right, well almost. There’s an incredibly moving moment that felt like the perfect ending to this film and essentially it is. But then he tacks on an extra minute-long scene. Now this brief final moment does carry some weight in itself and it does nothing to undo the previous scene. But it did have me wondering where it fit in chronologically. For me, he could have trimmed this scene and still have a near perfect ending. But it’s such a minor thing considering how incredible this film is as a whole.
Speaking of perfect, “Amour” is the perfect title for this film. This is a story of true love – a love between a husband and wife that only grew stronger through the many years they experienced together. It’s a love that’s taken for granted today and it’s often times treated so flippantly. But Haneke shows how precious it is and even in the face of this particular heartbreak it’s that love which shines brightest. There is an examination of cruelty and of suffering and there may be a bit of trickery going on. But for me it all came back to the deep love between this couple. I’ve thought a lot about this film since seeing it. I’ve thought about my marriage and growing old with my wife. I’ve thought about that cherished relationship that we share. Then I thought about Anne and Georges. They help us understand and appreciate the loyalty and self-sacrifice that comes with such a beautiful relationship. That my friends is amour.
VERDICT – 5 STARS