In terms of other films nominated for Best Picture in the past five years, Amour might be best comparable to the much praised montage at the beginning of the Pixar film Up, in which an animated film about the adventures of an old man and his flying balloon house rose heavily to impressive emotional heights. This moment, one of the most talked about film sequences for the rest of that year, had striking emotional grace through its finite portrayal of life factoring death into a loving relationship.
Amour is a film about that sinking emotional moment from Up’s opening montage when the wife Ellie, her youthful looks still resonant in her aging face, can no longer get to the top of a hill for her regular picnic with husband, Carl. From that point on Carl must take care of Ellie, both of them coming to terms with the reality that their story together may soon come to an end.
Writer/director Michael Haneke’s film, Amour, is a treatment that appears crushing in comparison to the images of old age presented in movies like Up, a PG-rated animated film in which Carl becomes increasingly more “able bodied” as the story progresses until, in the final action sequence, elderly Carl is performing physical feats usually reserved for Olympic calibre gymnasts. The lively bright colors of Up have faded in Amour with the shade of the characters’ clothes; even the lighting of their house is starting to grow dark. There is nothing like Giacchino’s waltzing melody as a sound track here either. For Amour, the only distinct sounds are that of sporadically included classical music (Bagatelles especially), but most of all, just the sound of silence.
This is a simple story of a husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and his wife (Emmanuelle Riva), who live in a rusting apartment in Paris, France. Their daughter (Isabelle Huppert), now middle-aged, has left them in their empty nest, where they sit together and eat meals, sharing spare conversation about small occurrences within the environment around them.
One day while they are in the kitchen, Anne has a stroke. From this point on, she is under George’s care. George has to deal with the frustrations of caring for his wife as her condition begins to worsen. Amour is about the final laughs, meals and physical moments of a relationship built out of the little things that two people share with each other over the course of a lifetime.
In her now Oscar-nominated performance, Riva (who once starred in lauded foreign classic Hiroshima, Mon Amour) puts in a turn equally as physical as Naomi Watts’ also nominated performance in The Impossible. Throughout Amour, we watch Riva physically fade away. She spends much of the time stationary, her physical requirements continually reduced, not to mention her waning ability to interact through dialogue with her husband. And yet, Riva maintains such honest charisma as Anne, a woman who is too proud to entertain pity. Riva provides this involved portrayal as if, in some very bizarre but effective way, she as an actress is prepared with adequate knowledge to face the end of her days herself.
Trintignant provides a sweeter part of the story, as the support system necessary to keep Anne alive. He shows the other side of persevering through the sadness of seeing the ones we love change for the worst, offering a calm portrait of a man trying to maintain patience and composure through unusual circumstances. A fine example of his tenderness is on display in a scene in which Georges interacts with a pigeon who has flown into their apartment through an open window, during what we can imagine is one of the loneliest parts of his life.
While Amour might sound like a large serving of emotional oatmeal mush or a two-story-tall pile of sadness, it isn’t. Amour’s loveliness is as a valentine to the feelings of real love. Amour shows the difficult passages of a relationship, especially when one person starts requiring the physical care of the other to survive. While we may be used to seeing younger couples as examples of love in the movies, Amour is striking as the type of movie that doesn’t allow us to forget that even our favorite movie couples, never mind those in our actual lives, will be going through this experience. Haneke depicts a crucial, yet often overlooked, area of human life with a touch that avoids being maudlin or playing it safet. Even when Haneke daringly toys with poetry, both in its resolution and a dream sequence, Amour does not contain a false aching bone in its body.
Michael Haneke is a filmmaker who sees suffering as a fundamental element of the human experience and he is working to change the impression that it can be corruptible within the world of film. This can certainly be seen in Funny Games, his brilliant, angry treatise against the torture film culture, an audience-challenger Haneke made a second time with obsessive desire to have it play for the correct viewers (those who will sit through it). This mindset is the foundation of Amour, where starkness is considered to be the only true language of human communication.
With static cinematography ingrained in the silent atmosphere of the house, the faded coloring and the aforementioned lack of music, Haneke’s most aggressive aesthetic tool to the gentle construction of Amour is his editing, which shakes the viewer with unexpected hard cuts from scene to scene. It makes the film’s concept of the true passage of time all the more evident, jolting viewers with the experience of cuts to loud sounds, like the whirring of vacuums, or as in with the beginning of the film, the sound of a door being burst open by police.
With these explosions providing the only interruption of this film’s quietness, Amour brilliantly captures the stillness of an empty house, a heavy honesty with regard to old age and the film’s largest element, horror. Amour is certainly one of the most triumphant films in capturing a tough human detail, while observing both the responsibilities of love and the fleeting of mortality. Many films, from Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow to Up, address these same subject matters, but they often rely on reaching audiences through a lighter touch than Amour’s. That being said, Haneke isn’t so much a cynic, as that he does not want to be a liar.
Many films, as inspired by non-fictional emotions and or events, aim to find escapism in their truths. This is certainly the case with the movies recently celebrated as possible candidates for “Best Picture,” including Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty. With these films, true events are made into entertainment, the spirit of such captured in however a filmmaker wants to manipulate it to provide audiences an engrossing experience; the reality behind such events is an afterthought. (Haneke addresses this through a piece of dialogue spoken by Anne as she asks Georges to let her die, “Imagination and reality have little in common.”)
Amour, the most difficult of all films to be nominated by The Academy this year, is the passionate product of a writer/director thoroughly uninterested in providing his audience the lull of easy entertainment. Based on an original screenplay by Haneke, Amour is a film in which the stunning story of love and death has no sense of escapism. Nothing in Amour can be mistaken for fiction.
Den of Geek Rating: 4.5 Out of 5 Stars