Amour is a truly an actor’s film in the sense that perhaps only other actors, performers, or filmmakers can fully appreciate the commitment the stars of this film make to the material in order to make the film as powerful as it is.
That said, it is not an enjoyable film in the conventional sense. It’s a brutally honest portrayal of old age, of how quickly and silently the afflictions that cripple our elders can strike and rob them of their vitality, their lucidity, and their very identity.
But it’s also a story about a kind of love increasingly rare in our world of short attention spans, marriage on a whim and divorce via the internet. It’s the kind of love that endures between a husband and a wife for decades because the couple continues to see beauty in each other each and every day. That kind of love can be beautiful to behold, but it can also be selfish and even cruel, despite the best of intentions, and the reason the film works is because it gives equal weight and screen time to each of those facets.
The plot of the film is simple enough: Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva) are a couple in their eighties, both retired music teachers, both refined in their tastes and dignified in their manners and expression. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is married and lives abroad, and so they live each day for each other, talking about books, piano concertos, and the news of the day in quiet tones over simple meals that you get the sense Anne has prepared for them for years. Georges complains about his back and body aches, and Anne humors his grousing with a knowing smile. This is their lives, and they are content … until one morning it all changes.
A stroke leaves Anne paralyzed on one side of her body, and after recovering at the hospital she makes Georges pledge never to bring her back there again. Georges honors her request, and takes it upon himself to care for his suddenly dependent wife. The rest of the film follows Georges daily efforts in the face of Anne’s slow deterioration and loss of hope. Once she reaches a point that so many of our elderly reach under those circumstances, the point where they no longer wish to go on in the face of further pain and loss of sensibilities, it falls to Georges to reconcile how to hold on to the woman he’s loved for so long while still honoring her wishes and preserving her dignity.
Viewers who have experienced similar situations will certainly see much that’s familiar and difficult to watch in what director Michael Haneke shows us on screen and what the actors depict with unflinching realism: simple acts such as standing up, getting into and out of bed, bathing, and dressing all made painful and humiliating due to the need for nurses, diapers, and wheelchairs. Don’t be surprised if you feel as though you’re invading the privacy of these two people, each of whom is suffering in every way that matters. Watching the proceedings feels less like watching cinema and more like being privy to their intimate space, and unless you enjoy being witness to the emotional suffering of others, it’s bound to make you at least a little uncomfortable. That’s the point — this is life, and life, particularly at the end, can be difficult, ugly, and not at all what we might have chosen for ourselves or our loved ones.
For film audiences outside of Europe, it may be the first time they are treated to the acting talents of Trintignant and Riva, and that may actually add to the sense that what they are seeing is not actually the work of actors, but rather the suffering of real people. If you’re able to look objectively at what you’re seeing and think, “Yes, these are actors,” then you can start to appreciate why these performances have earned accolades and awards around the world. Riva’s work as Anne has earned her an Oscar nod, but Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance is also a memorable one–in fact, it’s he who has to carry the film in its final minutes and convey in silence all the conflicting emotions the broken Georges experiences, both in his waking life and in haunting visions that we only recognize as dreams because we see Georges wake up from them.
For their work and for Haneke’s, this film is deserving of every honor the film industry has bestowed and can bestow. You may not enjoy the film if you choose to see it — in fact, if you say you did enjoy it you may earn curious and concerned looks from people around you — but you will certainly come away from it respecting the talents of everyone involved and Emmanuelle Riva in particular. It simply demands that respect.
Score: 4.5 out of 5
Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell. Written and directed by Michael Haneke.
Running Time: 127 minutes
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language.