With “Amour,” Austrian director Michael Haneke has crafted a grinding, devastating love story about physical decline that deserves to be seen by everyone. Should viewing it, in fact, be mandatory for some? High schoolers might be too young and distracted to appreciate that its unflinching portrayal of marriage and aging most likely lies in their future. But perhaps watching “Amour,” a surprise Oscar nominee for best picture, should be a condition for young couples wishing to marry, to impress upon them the stakes of a lifelong commitment.
The film effectively communicates to viewers that if they’re lucky enough to enjoy longevity and a successful marriage, they may face their greatest personal challenges at the end of their lives. Arguably “Amour,” despite Haneke’s merciless, clinical point of view, presents a best-case scenario.
After a short, shocking prologue that foreshadows its outcome, the film opens with a scene that signals its thematic universality. Haneke holds the camera on a seemingly endless shot of a cultivated Parisian audience gathering in the seats in a concert hall. Among them we notice octogenarian married couple Marie and Georges, played by two icons of European cinema, Emmanuelle Riva of “Hiroshima, Mon” and Jean-Louis Trintignant of “A Man and a Woman.” The pair of former music teachers wait for the concert to begin, and while the Parisian theater may be fancier than the average cinema, the shot could mirror the movie’s own audience, waiting for the screen narrative to start.
Afterward, Marie and Georges return home to the rest of the movie’s location, their spacious, tasteful apartment furnished with books and a piano. As they chat over breakfast, they prove affectionate with each other but a little formal by modern standards, perhaps conveying a generational attitude toward propriety and emotional transparency. Then, without warning, Marie freezes up in a seemingly catatonic state, unwilling or unable to acknowledge her husband. She snaps out of it moments later with no memory of lost time, in the first sign of her failing health.
Haneke doesn’t always make clear how much time elapses between scenes, but we get an impression that Marie suffers a quick series of physical setbacks. A stroke leaves her right side paralyzed, and she endures an off-screen operation that fails to improve her condition. Confined to a wheelchair, she takes the experience hard and says to Georges, “Please, never take me back to the hospital.” They receive a few visitors, including their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert, who played the title role in Haneke’s “The Piano Teacher”), who repeatedly argues for Marie to be put into care, but Georges refuses to go against his wife’s wishes.
For her portrayal of Marie, Riva has become the oldest performer ever nominated for best actress. Normally, high-profile awards go to actors and actresses who give grand, highly embellished performances that project a role out to the viewer. Riva does the opposite here, with a character who diminishes over the course of the film.
Marie withdraws emotionally as her physical limitations increase, until she can’t feed herself or change her clothes. At some points, all she does is repeatedly moan the word “hurts.” Riva delivers the acting equivalent of the final lines of Shakespeare’s “Seven Stages of Man” speech: “Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”
The acclaim for Riva upstages Trintignant, but his work here is even more subtly powerful. Devoted to Marie but crotchety and antisocial, Georges squabbles with unsympathetic nurses and takes on an increasing burden of his wife’s care. When Marie childishly balks at taking food or drink, he forces sustenance on her like an impatient parent. Anguished by the prospect of her loss, and no spring chicken himself, Georges exceeds the limits of his personal resources to keep Marie alive, and Trintignant conveys the toll it takes.
Occasionally Haneke shifts away from images of Marie’s infirmity. A nightmare expresses Georges’ anxieties with suspense-film symbolism, while an invading pigeon provides a change of pace that isn’t quite comic relief but gives a chance for the audience to breathe more easily.
Early notices characterized “Amour” as a change of pace for Haneke, who specializes in unsparing studies of misanthropy such as “Funny Games” and “The White Ribbon.” “Amour” does justice to the depth of the couple’s feelings for each other while barely offering a shred of sentiment. At times it’s like watching the twilight of their lives through an apartment nanny cam that captures all the toil and indignity of being an invalid, as well as the struggle to ward off despair. The movie offers a kind of reality check for viewers to prepare for their senior years. It’s not easy being old. Brace yourself.