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Love and Death

Jan. 28, 2013
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Amour opens as firemen force the door of a once-elegant Paris apartment, covering their noses against the smell of death. They find one of the occupants, the octogenarian Anne, laid out on her bed, hands folded peacefully as if already resting in her coffin. The rest of the film is a flashback leading toward a conclusion at once inevitable and a little weird.

With Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Foreign Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Actress, Amour is an international success for Austrian director Michael Haneke, who shot the screenplay largely in French and with a French cast. Amour resonates widely for its heartbreaking-to-watch, increasingly common scenario: an elder’s descent into dementia.

features Emmanuelle Riva—who starred as a young woman in the art house sensation Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)—as Anne, and veteran actor Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges, her husband. They are comfortable, cultivated upper-middle-class pensioners, as familiar with each other as any old married couple, yet still good friends with an unextinguished spark of romance. One morning, with little warning, Anne doesn’t respond during breakfast and stares blankly at Georges across the kitchen table. Medical science has a name for her condition, but not a cure. There is no hope of recovery and no prognosis save a swift if erratic decline from lucidity to silence, the limited mobility of a wheelchair and, finally, the sore confinement of bed. Early on, she asks Georges, “Why must I inflict this on you and me?” She adds, “I don’t want to go on.”

But contemplating the end is easier than meeting it, and meanwhile, Georges is a willing, mostly uncomplaining helpmate. Isabelle Huppert plays the couple’s daughter, concerned but far away in her own life and with nothing useful to offer. Georges’ old body strains in the act of moving Anne from place to place, helping her to the bathroom, picking her up when she falls. The emotional stress charges its own toll. Georges has enough money to keep Anne at home out of institutions, but the visiting nurses vary in sympathy. Georges lays awake at night, listening for the next shoe to drop.

Riva and Trintignant give remarkable performances of tremendous empathy and ultimately failed resilience, endowing their characters with the fullness of life even in the shadow of death. As the director of Caché (Hidden) and Funny Games, Haneke enjoys a reputation as a disturbing filmmaker. In Amour, he shoots some scenes like a sneak thief with a hidden camera overhearing the intimacies of others. He also brings an acute awareness of the strangeness that can enter everyday life, the nightmare that can creep into a dream.

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