Release date: May 20, 2012 (Cannes)
Written and Directed by: Michael Haneke
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud
Running Time: 92 minutes
A couple holds each other tight, shuffling and swaying together as they effect an inelegant dance. Though the scene merely depicts an old man helping his elderly wife walk the few steps over to her wheelchair, their halting pas de deux carries with it a bittersweet irony of days gone by … when perhaps an avid young suitor first took his ladylove into his arms and whirled her around the dance floor.
When we first meet octogenarians Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), they are a vibrant, decades-long married couple, intellectuals and retired music professors. They’ve just returned home from a concert in which their prior student was the featured soloist. But the front door to their lovely Parisian apartment is scratched up, as if some burglar had attempted to break-in. Georges isn’t concerned; he’ll call the handyman in the morning. But instead of going to sleep, Anne sits straight up in bed, wide awake, preternaturally frightened.
And so she should be. But the intruder she fears isn’t some thug who might do her harm — it seems that mortality itself has come knocking at her door. The next morning, when Anne joins her husband at the table after preparing his breakfast as usual, he notices that the salt shaker needs refilling. Normally Anne, in the traditional role of the wife as caretaker, would immediately pop up and take care of it. Instead, she stares off into space, immobile. After repeatedly trying to get her to respond, Georges slowly ambulates down the hall to the bedroom in order to get dressed and get help. His odd glacial pace signals his denial to the unexpected situation.
Once Anne snaps back to a conscious state, her denial is even more intense than Georges’ … and it becomes incumbent upon Georges to insist that she see doctors, followed by multiple tests and operations. One stroke follows another, and in a relatively short time span, both husband and wife are forced to come to terms with the fact that Anne’s inevitable descent toward the grave has begun.
With the deliberate, sometimes glacial pace that Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke is known for, this time around he gives us an unflinching depiction of the daily toll that sickness in old age exacts upon its victims. (The last film that Haneke entered in competition at Cannes was 2009′s The White Ribbon, which won the top prize of the Palme d’Or.) Furthering his reputation for refusing to explain his films, Haneke stated at this year’s Cannes press conference regarding Amour: “When you reach a certain age, you are inevitably going to be affected by suffering. I don’t want to show anything more than that, there is no more to it.”
But there’s plenty more to it. Though it’s rough going, Amour should be required viewing for anyone who has a close relation or friend either in faltering health or nearing a decided old age. In particular, we get a clearer understanding of the often insular attitude of our mature loved ones, who sometimes act strangely exclusionary as we demand answers, often questioning their decisions regarding a spouse’s healthcare. Representing our angry reaction to having the door shut in our face, literally, Isabelle Huppert as the middle-age careerist daughter Eva is pitch perfect. She’s been so involved in her own concerns for so long, she has no idea how to talk to her parents about anything other than herself. And as Anne’s degeneration continues, Eva assesses her parents’ choices through her own narrow vision, unable to grasp the truth of the situation at hand. When she begs her father to talk openly, he finally does … sternly and realistically, laying it all out before her. Suggesting that if Eva objects, perhaps Eva would like to take care of her mother herself.
Beautifully and bravely acted by long-time French movie stars Jean-Louis Trintignant (awarded Cannes’ Best Actor in 1969′s Z, and the “Man” in 1966′s A Man and a Woman) and Emmanuelle Riva (Elle in 1955′s Hiroshima Mon Amour), now ages 82 and 85, respectively, there is a sober meta thread running throughout. Moving images are perhaps the greatest record-keeper of all, far more accurate than mere stills. They can unerringly reveal the actor’s growth … both in talent (hopefully) and in age (plastic surgery aside, undeniably). If old age can happen to those beautiful people up on the screen, then unexpected events notwithstanding, it will most definitely happen to us.
As we watch, we wish we could hurry the piece along, hoping to get this old-age horror show over and done with. We care about these characters, yes, but we also squirm with discomfort. And that may be the exact point that Haneke intended.
Rating on a scale of 5 reluctant visits to the old age home: 4
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