Even in their 80s, Georges and Anne are not done with life, or each other. While their relationship has its complications — Anne thinks Georges can be a monster, “but very kind” — it is one that still has places to go, one with stories that have yet to be told.
And then, in a moment, it doesn’t.
Amour is about what happens after that moment, when the obligations of love seem clear, only to prove more graphic and painful than is at first evident.
The film is the last of the nominees for the best-picture Oscar to make it to a Northeast Ohio theater, and it arrives with considerable fanfare. More than one review has declared it a masterpiece. It won the top prize at the Cannes film festival in 2012. The Oscar nominations include not only best picture, but also best actress (Emmanuelle Riva, at 85 the oldest nominee ever in this category), best foreign-language film, best director (Michael Haneke) and best original screenplay (also Haneke).
But be advised that the fanfare is for a film that is at once realistic and occasionally dream-like, wrenchingly emotional and a bit chilly — not unlike the character of Georges, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who like Riva is a major figure in French cinema. Still, in its occasional distance from raw emotion, it is all the more a reminder of what we face as we grow older — especially with a loved one. Strength diminishes, the power of speech and thought fade, old companionship becomes no more than a memory. What is amour, love, in the face of all that? Haneke makes us ask how we would answer under such conditions.
After establishing the scent of death that will hang over the rest of the film, Amour introduces us almost indirectly to Georges and Anne, retired music teachers. They are first seen in the crowd in a concert hall, with Haneke somehow making us notice the older couple amid all the other spectators. The pianist who is performing was once Anne’s student. It’s a pleasant evening, marred later by the discovery that someone has broken into the couple’s apartment — but even that just seems to be one of life’s little upsets, and easily remedied.
A harsher turn comes one morning: As Georges and Anne eat and chat, Anne freezes. She is unaware of anything around her for long moments — then revives, puzzled by Georges’s alarm. She has had a stroke, the first in a series of medical problems, including eventually an even more severe stroke. (One way Haneke tracks Anne’s change is by the items on top of her nightstand, as books give way to medications and equipment.) Georges tries to take care of Anne (their daughter is of no real help), but he is too old for some support. One scene finds him barely able to help the immobile Anne move.
A nurse is brought in, then a second one. Death is inevitable — as Anne recognizes before Georges — but slow in coming. There is less to do, less to say, almost daily. Georges, who has promised Anne he will not put her in a hospital again, becomes ever more caught up in her care, and increasingly confined to their apartment, surrounded by reminders of when their life was different. More than once, the intensity of Georges and Anne’s struggle is made clearer by the complaints of other characters, which seem so minor in comparison with what the old couple faces.
Trintignant is masterful at conveying Georges’ contained fury at the situation, and the way he is losing Anne, making the audience wonder if that fury will ever break free. Riva, meanwhile, has the daunting task of portraying physical and mental decline in which emotional agony remains strong — of saying so much when Anne can no longer clearly speak. Riva and Trintignant work marvelously together (it’s hard to understand how the Oscars could nominate one but not the other). We not only hear, but also feel her anguished cries, and see how they dig into Georges’ soul — and know how they remain with us as the film ends.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and for Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.