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Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Review: Amour (2012)

* * * *

Director: Michal Haneke
Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant

If you have even a passing familiarity with Michael Haneke’s body of work, then you’ll know that when I say that Amour is his most devastating film to date, that’s really saying something. While his films always have an air of the sinister about them, his latest is so effective because it isn’t about the invasion of a sinister outer force into an ordinary life. It’s about an ordinary life falling victim to something equally ordinary and entirely inescapable: growing old. It’s a film that is brutal in its stark simplicity, beautiful in the fearless precision of its performances, and altogether completely compelling.

Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant star as Anne and Georges, a long married couple whose firmly entrenched routines are upended when Anne has an episode at the breakfast table. In one moment she and Georges are talking, and in the next she seems to have drifted out of consciousness, still awake but in a catatonic state, completely unaware of Georges or anything else. A few minutes later she’s back and has no idea that she was ever out. A trip to the hospital is made, followed by surgery, which goes wrong and leaves her paralyzed along one side. The experience leaves her shaken and she asks Georges to promise that he’ll never let her be hospitalized again. George is uncertain how to respond to this because, while Anne can already see her swift decline unfolding before her eyes, he is still optimistic and unwilling to acknowledge what she knows: that the end is not so far off.

Georges and Anne struggle to reconstruct their life around the new reality of Anne’s physical limitations, trying to go about their business as normally as possible for as long as possible. It isn’t long, however, before Anne has another stroke, and as her health continues to fail, she becomes too ill for Georges to care for by himself. Their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), wants Anne to go to hospice, but Georges refuses, knowing that it is contrary to Anne’s wishes and, perhaps, not wanting to admit that things are quite that hopeless. He hires a nurse to help him but Anne continues to drift further and further away, becoming bedridden, and her mental faculties becoming unmoored. Soon she can no longer communicate in sentences and can express little except that she’s in pain. It’s the end, it’s now just a question of mercy.

As Anne and Georges, Riva and Trintignant – perhaps best known outside of their native France for their work in Hiroshima mon amour and Z, respectively – are simply superb. There is a natural, lived-in quality to their interactions together on screen that ultimately gives the story its weight. As Anne’s ailments increase, Riva is required to do more while seeming to do less, expressing the personality increasingly trapped inside a body that is steadily shutting down. The amount of praise she has received for the role is entirely justified, though it is curious that her on-screen partner has received less attention for a role that is arguably just as tricky and certainly just as excellently played. One couldn’t exist without the other and Trintignant is as crucial as Riva to Amour’s success.

Also crucial, of course, is Haneke’s firm grasp of the narrative. Amour unfolds at the kind of deliberate, gentle pace never seen in mainstream Hollywood fare. Haneke patiently explores the rhythms of Anne and Georges’ life together and just as patiently explores how, beat by beat, that rhythm is disrupted and eventually destroyed. He depicts the proceedings in a matter-of-fact way, neither overplaying the angst nor shying away from the most devastating aspects of the subject matter. Amour is a film that is often hard to watch because it is so unflinching about the indignities – both minor and major – of aging and the loss of quality from a once vibrant life. It is sympathetic to its characters – feeling for Anne’s desire not to become a shadow of herself, and for Georges desperation to find a way to hold on to her, and his growing frustration at the reality of the situation – but never sappy, favoring a minimalist and unobtrusive approach over the more typical filmmaking strategy of underscoring every dramatic moment with stylistic flourishes. Amour is as compelling as it is because it doesn’t force anything; it just seems to stand back and let the story unfold. It’s a great work from one of the greatest filmmakers working today.

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