It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. It accomplished an unprecedented sweep of the European Film Awards, taking best picture, director, actor and actress. The Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. thinks it’s the best picture of the year, and so do I. What is it about Michael Haneke’s “Amour” that inspires this level of fervor and respect, given that it’s basically a two-character drama set almost exclusively in an unassuming Paris apartment?
The answer is that “Amour” is a perfect storm of a motion picture, with an icy, immaculate director unexpectedly taking on deeply emotional subject matter: what happens to a lifelong, harmonious marriage when the wife suffers a series of debilitating strokes that changes the couple’s life beyond recognition. The resulting interplay of ruthless restraint and unavoidable passion, plus the film’s refusal to shrink from depicting the inevitable horrors of physical deterioration, is devastating.
Because the key focus of “Amour” is on the enduring love between this couple — or, as the writer-director has said, “how we cope with the suffering of someone we love very deeply” — casting could not be more critical. The subtle but unstoppable acting here is impossible to improve on.
Though Haneke is Austrian, some of his best-known films, including “Cache” and “The Piano Teacher,” feature French players, and he has set “Amour” in Paris and elicited shattering performances by two superb actors we have been watching all our movie lives, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant.
Riva, who is 85, made her first splash as the star of Alain Resnais’ 1959 “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” while the 82-year-old Trintignant has starred in some 135 films, including such popular classics as “A Man and a Woman,” “Z” and “The Conformist.”
It is a bit of a shock to see these familiar faces so aged (especially Trintignant, who essentially retired from film in 1998). But watching them act here, seeing how a lifetime’s worth of craft informs their ability to convey so much without seeming to be doing anything at all, is a revelation.
Essential to these performances is Haneke’s surpassing skill as a minimalist director, someone who adroitly pares away everything that is extraneous and, with a severity that has felt like coldness in other films but is welcome here, absolutely forbids the slightest whiff of the kind of sentimentality that would be ruinous.
In fact, Haneke is so rigorous in what he wants that Trintignant considers him the most demanding filmmaker he’s ever worked for. “Often, directors ask us to show what we feel, and with Haneke, no, above all you mustn’t show what you feel,” he told one interviewer. “You have to just feel, and he does the rest.”
Before the tenor of the couple’s experience irrevocably alters, “Amour” introduces us to them as they enjoy the kind of loving, companionable old age we all hope we can have. We encounter Georges and Anne at a Paris concert hall, attending a classical recital by Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud, a top French pianist), one of Anne’s many students, we intuitively understand, who have succeeded professionally.
Then, the next morning as they share a cozy breakfast in their kitchen, something happens. It happens so suddenly, so imperceptibly, we can’t see it even if we know it’s coming. But it changes everything.
Georges asks Anne a question, and just like that she does not respond; her mind has gone away. The change is so subtle it takes both Georges and viewers a minute or so to realize that anything has occurred. This brief catatonic state is soon over, and not only does Anne not remember it, but she also has difficulty believing it took place. Though a trip to doctor terrifies them both for different reasons, a visit is clearly necessary.
An unspecified time later, Georges is in conversation with the couple’s daughter, Eva (Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert), who has come over from London, where she lives with her fellow classical musician husband. Anne has suffered a minor stroke because of a blockage of the carotid artery, and surgery to clear up the condition has made things worse, leaving her frightened and unable to move around the apartment without a wheelchair. Eva offers to help, but Georges says firmly, “We’ve always coped, your mother and I.”
With Anne’s mobility impaired, the film never leaves that apartment again (in one of “Amour’s” many personal touches, the homeis modeled after the former apartment of Haneke’s parents). Veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji is expert in keeping us visually involved despite the restricted setting. Camera movements are limited but fluidly executed, and Haneke is not afraid to keep the camera motionless and frame scenes in a static wide shot.
Georges and Anne do their best to get used to their dramatically different circumstances, to cope not only with Anne’s altered physical condition but also with the changes in their individual psychology and how they relate to each other. Their unspoken fear is that things will get only worse. And, of course, they do.
“Amour” does not hesitate to depict Anne’s increased physical degeneration, but it also looks squarely at the inconceivable emotional strains placed on both of them — strains that outsiders, including their daughter, can’t alleviate or even understand. When Georges is forced to tell Eva point blank, “your concern is of no use to me,” it is a moment both shocking and inevitable.
Finally, however, as its title insists, “Amour” is a moving love story, a privileged glimpse of a relationship between two people who are everything to each other, and a film that enlarges our understanding of a reality we would prefer not to confront. This is a narrative not of the end of love but of love taken to the bitter, hard-to-bear end. When Anne says at one point as she looks at photo albums of their past, “it’s a beautiful life,” we are meant to understand that nothing we’ve seen or will see can possibly alter that.
• This film is currently playing at the Gold Town Nickelodeon.