More than any other foreign language film before it, Amour seems a sure-thing for winning the Oscar® for Best Foreign Language Picture of 2012. The year began with the Palme d’Or at Cannes where the film had its world premiere. It topped many critics’ award lists before winning the Foreign Language Award at the Golden Globes. It is even nominated for Best Picture in the Oscars®. I cannot remember the last time a foreign film crossed over into that category. Beyond the film’s accolades, director Michael Haneke has gained a reputation as one of the more important filmmakers working today. With every new film, the Austrian director has only ever upped his game. Amour is no less an example of his skill as an auteur. From his decisions in casting the lead roles to his efficient use of dialogue, Haneke has an awe-inducing ability to maximize the art of cinema to serve his end. Amour dwells on an elderly couple’s love as the wife debilitates from a stroke. The brilliance of the film lies in how Haneke takes such a simple premise to illuminate the viewer’s relationship with aging, and, in effect, living itself. The director, also the sole screenwriter, makes it clear that his film will be as much about death as it is about life when he opens the movie with the discovery of the body of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) laid out on her bed, surrounded by decaying flowers. He implicates the viewer by next introducing she and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as part of a crowd in a theater staring right through the screen, as a mirror of the cinema audience. In the crowd, people murmur (living) and cough (dying). An announcer warns members of the crowd to shut off mobile devices. After more murmurs and coughs, they applaud before the film cuts to the next scene: a ride home on the metro, where we get a closer look at the elderly couple but still at a distance and among people. The camera maintains a distance to show these are people among people. Anne and Georges are only faces in the sea of coughs and chatter. They are among us, yet they also are us. They are alive and near death. Life goes on, despite it slowing down for them. And, the film implies more subtly, we will all reach that state at some point, as well. As grim as it might seem, Amour spends much of its time reminding the viewer of his or her own mortality while humanizing this caring couple. Besides the initial establishing scenes in the concert hall and train, the couple is only ever presented in what will be Anne’s tomb: the couple’s culturally overflowing Paris apartment. They were musicians and teachers at some point before the events depicted in the film. A grand piano sits at the center of giant library, played only by a ghost at one point in the film. Paintings, CDs and books they have accumulated over their long lives together loom over their existence as the occupy their last few days on earth with mostly mundane things. Their kitchen is tiny by comparison, and it is here where Anne suffers her first stroke. Time seems to stop for her as Georges tries to get her attention, but she does not respond. When she comes back to awareness, she carries on as if nothing has happened. When Georges tries to explain what happened, Anne has no memory of the event. A frozen moment presents itself as the first shift toward the abyss. Haneke wastes no opportunity to present other frozen moments as eternity, such as Anne’s sudden desire to look at photo album and a beautiful and an exquisite, soundless montage of the paintings, some in detail, in Anne and Georges’ apartment. But the real game-changing moment, a sudden shift in awareness Haneke so skillfully plays with in his films, arrives during a conversation between the couple. There’s an exchange between the two about 45 minutes into the film. It’s a conversation loaded with speculation, what would to do for our loved one should something happen, such as the stroke Anne had so suddenly suffered. Every couple has imagined the thought whether aloud or in private contemplation. Up until this moment in the film this angle of perception did not come up. They were a couple who did things together. They were a unit, a team who will get through Anne’s ailment together. They had similar tastes and interests that buoyed their many years of marriage. If they could not beat this thing together, they would deal with it together. He offers his view: “Put yourself in my shoes. Haven’t you ever thought it could happen to me, too?” “Sure,” she responds, and here arrives Haneke’s signature twist of perception: “But imagination and reality have little in common.” Thus, the great, unbreachable gulf arrives between the couple. As Anne deteriorates, they begin to more clearly lose their bond and unified place in time together. It happens in humbling and humiliating circumstances. As a nurse goes through the motions of changing Anne’s diaper, dictating directions to Georges. Anne’s mortified face speaks volumes. Haneke presents scenes like these with no sentimentality, and Riva dives in with him, giving a brave, self-deprecating performance that captures an awareness of the gradual suffering of a helpless, aged person that feels not only heart-rending to watch but uncomfortable (she has also been singled out for a Best Actress Oscar®). Discomfort is also part of Haneke’s aesthetic. He sets up one of these with a visit from a successful former student of the couple (pianist Alexandre Tharaud playing a version of himself). Though the student shows empathy to see his teacher with a useless hook of a right hand, he also has a flourishing career with a recording contract and sold out shows. Alexandre’s moment on earth at the height of his career especially hits hard when he sends them a card calling their strength in the face of Anne’s stroke “beautiful and sad.” Anne cannot bear to listen to his CD after that sentimental note. What does anyone know about dying when they have so much life ahead of them? There are many moments such as these to look for, including several featuring their daughter Eva played by the always wonderful Isabelle Huppert. Of course the subject matter is difficult, but Haneke’s anti-sentimentality— also captured magnificently by the two brave leads— offers as much respect to living as it does death. There is a poetic reveal of the intermingling of life, death and love that vividly comes to light throughout Amour, not least of all in the final gesture of love by Georges to his wife. The best poetry is unsentimental and life-affirming. With Amour, Haneke reveals himself as a true poet of cinema. —Hans Morgenstern
Amour is Rated PG-13 (growing old ain’t pretty, after all), runs 127 min. and is in French with English subtitles. Sony Pictures Classics provided a DVD screener for the purpose of this review. It opens in South Florida at the following theaters on Friday, Jan. 25:
Up-dates: The indie art house Miami Beach Cinematheque has added Amour to its line-up. It premieres just after Valentine’s Day, Feb. 22. After you’re done celebrating love in all its commercialized glory, go see Amour for your reality check. Visit this hotlink: for ticket information. It later arrives in mainland Miami’s art house, the O Cinema beginning March 1 (click here for ticket information and screening dates).
(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)