Grade: 96 (A)
Michael Haneke has spent the past twenty years as one of European cinema’s greatest provocateurs. Bracingly unsentimental, chillingly austere, and with a tendency to fill his films with moments that leave the audience’s mouths agape (see: Funny Games, Cache), Haneke isn’t exactly a director whose work one puts on to find any sense of comfort. But while it’s often missed under his stark, pitiless style and tendency to moralize, there’s a sense of empathy within Haneke’s best films. That empathy branches out to outright compassion in Haneke’s typically emotionally grueling but deeply felt Amour, Haneke’s second Palme D’Or winner, the film that made him an unlikely Oscar-nominee, and one of the best films of the year.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are an octogenarian couple, both retired music teachers. One morning, during breakfast, Anne has a catatonic episode that she cannot remember as soon as she snaps out of it. Frightened, Georges takes her to the hospital, where an operation goes wrong and leaves her paralyzed on her right side. Georges promises not to take Anne back to the hospital. Anne’s condition worsens as she’s left almost totally unable to move or speak and Georges is left to watch the love of his life slowly deteriorate.
While there are a handful of brief appearances by other actors (most notably Isabelle Huppert as their daughter), Trintignant and Riva are the only major characters in the film. It’s a smart piece of casting by Haneke, as Trintignant and Riva are former French New Wave/European cinema stars (he of My Night with Maud, Z, and The Conformist, she of Hiroshima, mon Amour), both part of a generation of filmmakers and directors increasingly approaching their twilight years. The casting wouldn’t mean anything if the two weren’t up to task, though. Trintignant gives one of his greatest performances as a man determined to keep his wife alive, despite all evidence pointing towards a rapidly approaching demise. His normally gentle demeanor sometimes gives way to curt reactions towards his daughter when he can’t bear to see Riva in pain, or towards unfeeling nurses who don’t take proper care of his wife. Riva is equally excellent as a spirited woman whose gradual loss of ability is only made more heartbreaking by her likability.
Haneke doesn’t fill the film with any major set-pieces as in Funny Games or Cache, though one startling moment near the end will no doubt wreck audiences across the country. Mostly he boils his austere style down to its base elements: simple but powerful and stark cinematography (with beautiful soft lighting by master director of photography Darius Khondji), an unsparing look at life’s most grueling moments, and an emotionally powerful core, somehow both visceral and delicate. Haneke cuts through the potential sob-story plot and tells a tale of how love is less about flowers and romance and more about pushing yourself to the absolute limit to make someone’s final days more bearable. Let no one say anymore that Haneke is heartless.