It’s always a risk putting yourself in the hands of director Michael Haneke. His vice-like command of the cinema can make his best work – say, Cache – unshakeable in a good way, yet it also makes his misguided efforts (Funny Games, which he inflicted on us twice) nasty chores to watch. What does that mean when he takes on a fairly straightforward story about an aging couple dealing with the wife’s failing health? An emotional wrenching of the highest order.
A hallowed pair of French actors anchors the film: Jean-Louis Trintignant plays Georges and Emmanuelle Riva plays Anne, married, retired music teachers who spend quiet days in their comfortable apartment reading, talking and listening to music. Occasionally they attend concerts, which is where we first see them. Actually, we have to seek them out. In one of those busy, full-frame compositions Haneke favors (think of the final shot of Cache), the camera presents an attentive audience sitting in the theater. Knowing what the movie was about I searched for Georges and Anne and easily found them, as there seems to be a slight glow about them compared to everyone else. (Darius Khondji’s cinematography is lustrous throughout, even in the dark of night.)
Amour is true to the awfulness of aging, yet Haneke also unveils a trait I didn’t previously associate with him: mercy.
Of course Trintignant and Riva are even more crucial than the cinematography in establishing this relationship. Their early scenes together are full of familiar comfort and the richness of routine; when they gaze at each other, you see decades of affection. This makes the stroke suffered by Anne all the more tragic. As her health recedes, that commitment remains (Georges brings her home from the hospital determined to care for her himself), but their connection begins to fade, a change the actors express primarily through altered physicality. Compare how Georges and Anne move and talk at the start of this film to the way they do at the end, and you realize the transformation they’ve made is as impressive as any Raging Bull-style weight fluctuations other actors have undergone.
Amour is true to its story’s pain – it’s one of the bravest films I’ve seen about the awfulness of aging – yet Haneke also unveils a trait I didn’t previously associate with him: mercy. His frequently still camera sometimes carries the hint of sadism, but here – as it waits for Anne to move from the bed to a chair, or watches her quietly read – it exudes patience. Haneke wrings us out, but tactfully, as during a scene in which Georges watches in quiet despair as a nurse blithely demonstrates how to put a diaper on Anne. We feel the couple’s anguish – Anne’s too, even as she lies motionless – yet before the moment becomes unbearable the movie cuts away to a (fantasy? memory?) of a healthy Anne playing the piano while Georges listens.
So Amour has both a heaviness and a hopeful desire to honor its title. You could argue about the sort of love on display in the final 20 minutes, yet in thinking about the ending, my mind tends to find a quiet sense of peace. In fact, what I remember most is the seemingly arbitrary sequence in which a frail Georges tries to throw his coat over a pigeon that has flown in through their apartment window. He struggles, and struggles, and struggles. After much slow and clumsy effort, he manages to cover the bird, calm it, go to the open window and set it free.