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Magnificent in its simplicity and its relentless honesty about old age, illness and dying, Michael Haneke’s Amour is a deliberately torturous watch, one that is going to weed the master’s fan club of the lightweights who went along for the ride with the morbid mental puzzle-solving of Hidden and Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon.
No riddles in this utterly linear and unfrilly script. Performances from Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as a genteel Parisian couple in their eighties illuminate the difficult subject matter, but it’s hard to imagine this downbeat study can reach the same audiences as Haneke’s recent work. Accessibility is clearly not the issue, as everything is laid out in plain sight from the bang-on opening scene: The fire brigade breaks down the door of a spacious Paris apartment to find a long-dead old woman lying in bed, her head surrounded by flowers. The rest of the film is a claustrophobic flashback leading up to this moment.
Switch to a classical music concert in which only the audience is seen from the stage in a single elegant, long-held shot. Among them are Anne (Riva) and Georges Laurent (Trintignant), retired music buffs. He hobbles a bit but they seem to be a cheerful, alert and loving pair. Coming home that night, Anne has her first stroke, a mild affair mistreated with an operation (evidently at Georges’ insistence) that leaves her half-paralyzed and in a wheelchair. And so begins their terrible ordeal, whose outcome is already known.
Moment by moment, the actors delicately describe Anne’s descent into physical and eventually mental debilitation, while Haneke focuses with physician-like steadiness on the test it puts on Georges’ love for his wife. She feels humiliated by her condition and hates to be seen, but she can’t refuse the agitated visits of their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert, star of Haneke’s The Piano Teacher, another uncompromising exploration of love). Huppert negotiates a persuasive middle road, alternating between hysteria and conventional, teary reactions. After Anne has a second stroke, Georges bows to the need for part-time nurses and the degenerating nature of her illness becomes painful to watch, as she gradually loses the power of speech and seems to return to a state of early childhood, inarticulately crying out her pain.
The great dignity of the film’s wrenching final scenes soar high above any kind of moral or ethical debate, and beyond the questions of evil and responsibility that Haneke has raised elsewhere.
Trintignant and Riva, consummate veterans of French cinema, put aside their famous-film baggage, from his …And God Created Woman to her Hiroshima Mon Amour, to approach these roles with concentrated freshness, making each moment a deep plunge into a heroic side of themselves.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
Director: Michael Haneke
Screenwriter: Michael Haneke No rating, 127 minutes
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