"Amour" is a must-see film that not everyone must see, at least right now.
Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke's meticulous, superbly crafted portrait of an elderly couple facing the end of life chronicles a chapter that many viewers either have experienced or are confronting themselves. They don't need to be reminded of the unconsoling truths Haneke brings to light about illness, decline, devotion and grief.
Indeed, the ideal audience for "Amour" might be those lucky, head-over-heels young couples on the cusp of saying "Till death do us part." Here's what you're in for, kids.
Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play Georges and Anne, retired music teachers who lead a life of understated refinement in Paris. As "Amour" opens, Georges and Anne attend a piano recital, ending the evening in their well-appointed apartment. They're a "nation of two," as a poet once described marriage, secure in the companionable rhythms they've composed over decades of shared intimacy and tastes.
Soon thereafter, things begin to fall apart, as a series of small slips launch the couple on an agonizing downward slide. Although their daughter (played by Isabelle Huppert) occasionally visits, it's clear that the couple have built their own tender, civilized bulwark that serves not only as a source of strength against the outside world, but one of loneliness and, eventually, quiet desperation.
One of the most painful things about "Amour" isn't just watching vibrancy give way to senescence complete with diapers, feedings and wordless moanings. It's how, for all their culture and cosmopolitanism, Georges and Anne have so few social resources to draw on, in the form of family or friends.
This world view isn't terribly surprising coming from Haneke, whose past films include "Funny Games" and "The White Ribbon." He's a notoriously gimlet-eyed filmmaker whose austere style and facile pessimism often has been mistaken for philosophical depth.
But with "Amour," Haneke seems to be making a genuine step toward humanism, tempering his usual chilly sense of superiority with discretion and empathy. He's still a rigorous formalist and intellectual witness one of the film's first shots, wherein the film's audience watches another audience on screen. That sequence presages "Amour's" shattering climactic moments, when the notion of voyeurism and cruelty becomes inextricably mixed up with suffering, relief and an almost spiritual sense of sacrifice.
Haneke has eased his tendency to torture the audience for no good reason, and he's aided immeasurably by the indelible, magnificently expressive performances of Trintignant and Riva, both of whom were galvanizing romantic leads in their prime Trintignant in "The Conformist," Riva in "Hiroshima, Mon Amour." Watching Trintignant and Riva up close, with such transformed screen personae, gives "Amour" added power as a slice of time-lapsed cinematic history.
Haneke has made a film that is beautiful and horrifying, moving and confounding, profoundly moral and deeply troubling in other words, a movie that is utterly worthy of its all-encompassing title
★ ★ ★ 1/2
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert
In French with English subtitles
Director: Michael Haneke
Rated PG-13 (Thematic material including a disturbing act, and brief profanity)