Amour, the movie from Austrian filmmaker Michael Hanake who also gave us Funny Games and Cache, has more tension in a short scene of an elderly couple having dinner than Zero Dark Thirty has in the vast majority of its playing time. That might be because the central characters in Amour are facing death every moment of their existence while the central character in ZDT is only facing the annoying reaction of her superiors who just won’t recognize her innate genius. And Amour climaxes with two scenes of violence that are more emotionally gut wrenching than any of the torture scenes in Boal and Bigelow’s film.
George and Anne, husband and wife, are in their eighties. They are introduced first in the audience of a piano recital as just another set of spectators. In fact, if you didn’t know who they were from the posters and previews, you might not even realize the movie is about them. You don’t hear anything they say, yet you can tell from their faces, the way they act toward each other, the way they say something to the other and occasionally smile, that they still have great affection for one another. They are still in love and with little of the bitterness that a long life together can result in. And then it happens. Anne has a stroke and slowly but surely finds she can do less and less for herself.
Amour is a beautiful and powerful story, but it is also a devastating one. It is not easy to sit through or experience. It is not a nice movie. Haneke, as writer and director, gives neither George nor Anne much dignity as he details the mounting, daily degradations that Anne must suffer on her not so gentle going into that good night.
But that’s not exactly right, because in a way Hanake gives the both of them a great deal of dignity. He does it by not lying about what the situation is, by not pretending that something is happening that isn’t. Death is a fact. It’s not always pleasant. It’s sometimes scary and horrifying and in the end, it happens to us all and there is little you can do about it. It has no inherent meaning. It just is. And by refusing to lie about that, but to give the audience the reality of Georges and Anne’s life, Hanake honors them both and perhaps in a way, honors us all.
Georges and Anne are played by legends of the French film industry. Georges is played by Jean-Louis Trintignant who has been making movies since 1955, including Z, Three Colors: Red, …And God Created Woman, The Conformist, My Night at Maud’s. Anne is played by Emmanuelle Riva who began in 1957 and has been in Leon Morin, Priest, Three Colors: Blue, Therese. But perhaps most appropriately given the title of this film, both starred in two of the most important love stories in French film history; Trintignant in A Man and a Woman (cue that Michelle Legrand score) and Riva in Hiroshima, Mon Amour. And now, in this drama that is essentially a love story no matter the subject matter, both give emotionally rich performances that will not easily be forgotten.
Isabelle Huppert, a constant participant in Hanake’s films when she wasn’t busy doing films by Claude Chabrol (The Piano Teacher to name one), plays the couple’s daughter, Eva. This leads to one of the more powerful scenes when, as an emotional wreck, she confronts her father about his not talking to her about what is going on, refusing to return her calls and basically ignoring her. His response: I don’t have time to take care of both my wife and your emotional needs. It’s heartbreaking. You feel for Eva, but you know he’s right.
The film ends on what many might consider a slight note of sentimentality. But it is an act that demonstrates just how much these two people loved each other. And when the movie ends, all we are left with is that death has come and now it has gone and life goes on.