Midway through Michael Haneke's scrupulously devastating Amour, the elderly Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) tells his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) about a film he remembers watching as a child. Though he can no longer recall any details, he keenly remembers how the film made him feel, and the reminiscence brings him to tears. "The emotions remain," he tells Anne.
That scene is almost too perfect—it is, undoubtedly, Haneke's nod to the enduring power of cinema—but it captures what makes Amour both calmly beautiful and tremendously wrenching. Over the film's course, these octogenarians must come to terms with what happens when such emotions—or memories, or the abilities of speech or motion or coherence or continence—no longer remain. The film's title is not inaccurate: As certain as death is, there is equally little doubt about the love Georges and Anne have for each other. Trintignant and Riva, two aging cinematic titans themselves, are wholly believable as this long-married, deeply devoted couple. But the Austrian writer-director Haneke, ever the psychologically brutalizing provocateur, also takes an unsentimental, dignified and painfully transfixing look at infirmity and mortality.
Set almost entirely in Georges and Anne's comfortable apartment in modern-day Paris—they are retired music teachers—Amour lays its groundwork early. Anne has a stroke one morning, seeming to disappear mentally for several moments. She soon ends up in a wheelchair, having lost function on one side of her body. But she retains her spark for a while longer, and Riva's performance is as graceful as it is heartbreaking: There's a joyful scene where she laughs while spinning around in her motorized wheelchair, but also moments when she expresses a complex constellation of shame, sadness and confusion. As Anne's health declines, Georges' condition undergoes a change as well. His posture grows stooped and his gait clumsy, and though he remains loving and attentive, anger and frustration flash through. In one scene, Anne refuses to drink the water Georges offers and he impulsively slaps her. Family strains emerge with the entrance of their only child, Eva (the excellent Isabelle Huppert). Eva is high-strung, self-involved and powerless to understand or support her parents, and Huppert rattles the proceedings to unsettling effect.
Amour is intensely intimate in the way it documents life's small and often raw moments. Allowing his camera to give the characters space—and some privacy—Haneke patiently but insistently depicts how Georges must care for Anne. In wide and midrange shots, but rarely in close-up, we see him feeding her, bathing her, learning how to change her diaper. For anyone who has helped care for an aging relative or friend, these moments are familiar and wrenching. And though there's a fly-on-the-wall aspect to these scenes, they feel respectful rather than voyeuristic, aided by cinematographer Darius Khondji's naturalistic lighting and the dignity of Trintignant and Riva's performances.
But Haneke, known for disturbing and austere films like The White Ribbon and Caché, is far from maudlin, and at points Amour feels clinical—though not to ill effect. Instead, this distance contributes to the film's sense of mystery and the macabre. Very little happens, and the outcome is inevitable from the outset. Yet Haneke still builds an ominously suspenseful atmosphere, both with little details—what, for example, is the symbolism of the pigeon that keeps flying into the apartment?—and with flights of narrative unreliability. This is no easy film to watch: Haneke doesn't soothe the viewer, and though Amour may not contain the same cold shocks of menace or cruelty as his other films, it also does not relent in its painful realism. And that is precisely what endows it with such power.
Critic's Grade: A
SEE IT: Amour is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.