Iconic stars, fearless performances, in brave aging drama ‘Amour’
You don’t go to a Michael Haneke film to find comfort and joy. His is a chilly, clear-eyed worldview of human nature and consequences that turns an apparent genre thriller like Cache into a study of moral imperatives, or a historical drama like The White Ribbon into a haunted horror movie of deep-seated psychoses. As usual, Haneke’s excellent new film, Amour, is not for the faint-hearted; it may look like a domestic drama about a long-married couple rattling around their tiny Paris apartment, but it packs a wallop as Haneke confronts his most ferocious and devastating themes to date—the inevitability of aging, and the nature of commitment.
Two icons of French cinema, 82-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant and 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva, fearlessly act their age in a pair of mesmerizing, award-worthy performances. You rarely see people their age in movies at all these days, let alone as lead characters in a film with such a freighted title as “Amour.” And true to form, Haneke doesn’t fritter away their talents in some faux-inspirational tale about finding courage and dignity in old age. Rather, he portrays the end of life—much like the rest of life—as a minefield of choices, in which the struggle to understand and define oneself continues right up to the last breath.
Georges Laurent (Trintignant) and his wife, Anne (Riva) are both long-retired music teachers. Their small, old-fashioned Paris flat is full of books, magazines, and CDs, along with Anne’s vintage grand piano. The Laurents get around on the metro, attend recitals by their successful former students, and enjoy a life of quiet companionship. Until one morning, while sitting down at the kitchen table—without warning, right in the middle of a conversation—Anne suddenly becomes unresponsive.
The very ordinariness, yet strangeness of the moment, the way it happens so fast, without fanfare, is utterly harrowing. Even though Anne seems to snap back to normal in another minute, she’s just had a slight stroke, and nothing will be normal again. After a (failed) operation to slow the degenerative process, Anne returns home in a wheelchair with some paralysis on one side, and a hospital mattress is installed on her half of the couple’s bed. The first thing she does is make Georges promise to never send her back to the hospital.
Georges and Anne have always been self-sufficient. Their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), herself a globe-trotting musician, is occupied with her own life, family, and problems. But Georges learns to delegate some responsibilities, allowing the concierge to deliver groceries and clean the apartment, while training himself to maneuver his wife between the bed, the wheelchair, and the toilet. “Don’t feel guilty,” Anne instructs him stoically. “It will only be absurd and oppressive—for me, too.”
But guilt is only one of many complex feelings Georges must wrestle with as Anne’s condition gradually worsens—both physically and mentally. As the wry camaraderie they still shared while her disabilities were mainly physical begins to evaporate between them, Georges battles loneliness, anger, resentment and a sense of betrayal. But he also comes to terms with the profound depth of his responsibility—and, yes, his love—while inching toward the finality, and the nature, of that inevitable goodbye.
Riva is magnificent. Everyone who has ever watched a loved one deteriorate by degrees will recognize every phase of Anne’s decline in her performance, especially the desperation for connection that can no longer be expressed. (Small wonder Riva just became the oldest woman ever nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award.) But Trintignant delivers a performance of astonishing nuance and power as well. The degree of tenderness these two veteran actors infuse into the smallest gestures of this longtime married couple remains riveting throughout.
Old age is not for sissies, as the joke goes, and neither is this movie. But while it’s not exactly upbeat, it strikes a resonant chord of humanity that is both fascinating and rewarding; it’s not always easy to watch but it is never less than honest. And the lovely exit Haneke orchestrates for his characters after all their trials is a fitting finale to this brave, affecting film.
★★★1/2 (out of four)
With Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, and Isabelle Huppert.
Written and directed by Michael Haneke. A Sony Classics release.
Rated PG-13. 127 minutes. In French with English subtitles.