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For Better or For Worse

by Shawn Stone on February 13, 2013

Amour
Directed by Michael Haneke

 

This wrenching drama about an elderly couple facing illness, physical/mental decline, and, eventually, death, is bracing, heartwarming, alienating and thoroughly unsettling. It’s up for multiple Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film, which will hopefully lure a few more people into theaters.

Amour

We first meet 80-something Anne (Best Actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (the great Jean-Louis Trintignant, who should have been nominated) as they file into a concert hall. We almost, but not quite, lose them in the crowd as the fixed camera stares into the audience from the stage. Getting past the unnerving feeling that we’re looking at ourselves, we find them: Anne gazes expectantly at the stage (at us); Georges takes a brief, loving look at Anne—and then the music starts.

The next morning we see their routine: an elderly couple, entirely comfortable with each other, at breakfast. Then Anne has a stroke, and Georges must act.

Though their middle-age daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) makes a couple of appearances, most of the film is the mundane but moving drama of Georges and Anne adjusting to increasingly diminished circumstances. Anne’s world shrinks first to their apartment, then to the bedroom, and finally to what’s left of her mind.

It’s bracingly realistic.

Director Michael Haneke is notoriously impatient with and confrontational toward the attitudes of contemporary filmgoers. His brutal Funny Games movies—the European original and the Hollywood remake, both of which show a family brutalized and murdered by grinning teen sociopaths—are among the angriest, coldest hate letters tendered from filmmaker to audience. Even when he is not being antagonist, he is dependably rigorous.

Amour is no exception. His long, often static shots demand you scan the screen for every bit of information. Haneke’s spare storytelling means scenes often end mid-encounter, as soon as the point is made. The film opens enigmatically with a flash forward in which we see Anne’s corpse, her head ringed with flower petals, and ends just as enigmatically, immediately before her body is discovered.

But it’s not really all that enigmatic: If you’ve been paying attention—and Haneke, more than most filmmakers, is intent on making you pay close attention—you’ll know and understand.

As usual, the filmmaker makes no concession to commercial niceties. (There’s no musical score, for example.) He could have been much harsher in the presentation of Anne’s physical problems (I expected worse, I’ll admit), but he’s not out to humiliate her, or Georges; he wants us to feel the dimensions of their pain—and love. And he succeeds.