Review originally published October 2, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 New York Film Festival.
There are few things so touching as a director who’s generally cool stretching toward warmth – even if some of what he’s reaching for is just out of his grasp. “Amour,” which won the Palm d’Or last spring and which plays the New York Film Festival this Friday, is arguably Michael Haneke’s warmest picture. Even if the filmmaking is typically austere, the emotions Haneke teases out are quietly fiery at their core. The picture cuts straight to one of the most central human desires: Don’t most of us love the idea of finding the one person we want to grow old with? And yet Haneke takes the idea beyond the realm of romance: He knows the reality of growing old together isn’t for the faint of heart.
This is a love story between two octogenarians – or perhaps an end-of-love story about two people whose lives have been entwined for a long time. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers living in Paris. Early in the picture, we get a sense of their comfortingly repetitive lives: They attend a concert given by one of Anne’s former students, a concert pianist; the next morning they have breakfast together – we watch as Anne prepares an egg -- and Georges suggests that they might go down to Virgin later in the day to pick up the pianist’s new CD. In the middle of what seems to be a rather ordinary beginning to an average day, Anne suffers a kind of stroke. Not much later, she’s in a wheelchair, the right side of her body paralyzed. And eventually, she’s bedridden, unable to eat or attend to bodily functions by herself.
Anne’s decline happens in stages, with Georges caring for her dutifully – and often with an edge of exasperation – along the way. But in flashbacks that may or may not be remnants from Georges’ memory, we see enough of the previous Anne – the robust, healthy one – to have a sense of how much has been lost: In the dreamiest of those moments, she sits at the piano, half lost in the music she’s playing and yet completely attentive to it, a silver-haired woman who still wears red lipstick because somehow she knows it suits her. In that moment, we get the sense we’re seeing a woman capable of squeezing every possibility out of life, right up to the very end.
But if “Amour” is an exceedingly tender film – it lacks the self-conscious harshness of previous Haneke pictures like “The Piano Teacher” or “Caché” -- it does feel very much like a Haneke film in at least one sense: Life is full of cruel surprises, and “Amour” doesn’t turn away from them. If the idea of two people growing old together is romantic at its core, the reality often becomes a test of mettle. And accordingly, the faces of Georges and Anne age through the course of the movie: These two start out old and get older. The suggestion, as Trintignant and Riva spell out in these two supple, tensile performances, is that you never stop growing, even when you’re actually dying.
Is that a comforting thought or a horrifying one? Haneke, who also wrote the screenplay, seems to be suggesting that it’s a little of both. But he isn’t completely fixated on suffering: He’s deeply attuned to the beauty of his characters’ – and his actors’ – faces. The picture was shot by Darius Khondji, and at times his visual inspiration seems to come straight from Vermeer. At one moment we see Georges smoking a cigarette – a long-forbidden pleasure, perhaps, indulged in a moment of great stress? – as he stands near a window rimmed with decorative leaded glass. In the soft light, his skin looks almost translucent, papery, a little feminine. This is beauty without the benefit of youth, and the moment is touching because this actor in no way resembles the intense, staggeringly handsome young man we knew from “The Conformist” or “Z” or “The Great Silence” – and yet the sense that that man is there, deep inside, is undeniable.
Haneke occasionally strains too hard to make his points: Isabelle Huppert appears as the couple’s daughter, a distracted woman who lives in London with her on-again, off-again husband. Her character’s petulance – including her refusal to accept the reality of her mother’s decline – doesn’t quite ring true. The idea, perhaps, is that even though she’s the third component of this family unit, she’s really far outside it. At the end of this marriage, as at the beginning, there are two people and two people only.
And by the end of the movie, their love as we know it has ended – because despite what “Wuthering Heights” and a million other books tell us, you can’t take love beyond the grave. “Amour” suggests, though, that when love is well-tended by the living, it can grow into something else, something even brighter and richer, after death – but that’s a mystery that we can’t possibly know until we get there ourselves.