by David Lamble
Despite being exposed to more than my fair share of movies earnestly competing for the dubious distinction of "tearjerker," last night at the Clay was the first time I've witnessed someone actually sobbing uncontrollably after the lights came up. Even more remarkable is that the film prompting this heartfelt response was Amour, a classically inspired meditation on the last days of a 60-year relationship from an artist I've been tempted to label a "cinema terrorist," Austrian-born director Michael Haneke. An impeccably gifted craftsman, the 70-year-old prefers to work at least half his time in France, specializing in chillingly detailed scenarios that seek to rebut the Hollywood film template.
In arguably the most artistically realized of his films, 2001's The Piano Teacher, Isabelle Huppert gave Haneke a brave career-topping turn as a middle-aged woman trapped between an unhealthy bond with a psychologically unbalanced mother and her own S/M sexual impulses towards an assortment of men, including her own wildly attractive star pupil. On the other end of the Haneke canon, his Funny Games (filmed both in Austria and in an American shot-for-shot remake) is a repugnantly manipulative "home invasion" melodrama that functions as a kind of snuff film for middle-class values. An idealized family is kidnapped, tortured and murdered by a pair of philosophical goons who trample across the "fourth wall" to make sure we get the full measure of their contempt. Is it a resume that makes Haneke the perfect candidate to depict a devoted husband keeping a promise to his stroke-afflicted wife that she'll be allowed to die at home with dignity?
Amour opens as the couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are attending a piano recital by one of Anne's prized pupils, Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud). Thrilled by the evening, the couple is shocked to discover their elegant Parisian flat has been burglarized. Unbeknownst to them, this will be their last tranquil moment before tragedy strikes.
Haneke has so exhaustively researched and staged Anne's life-threatening incident, a blockage of the carotid artery that surgery fails to repair, that Amour could qualify for an AARP seminar in late-life disabilities. The couple is sitting through their typical dull breakfast routine when Anne suddenly experiences a catatonic moment. Georges attempts to summon help, but is drawn back into the kitchen when Anne breaks out of her trance to shut off the water in the sink without the slightest memory of the missing moments from their now-former lives. Haneke shows Georges' slowly dawning horror that the rituals of their once-serene retirement have irrevocably vanished. It's a portrait of devotion from a spouse with rough edges. Gradually their book- and concert-centered lives are taken over by doctor visits, motorized wheelchairs, hospital beds, dignity-robbing bathroom episodes, and a slowly simmering emotional guerrilla war with their grown daughter Eva (Huppert) and her British husband Geoff (a rare screen cameo from operatic baritone William Shimell). The husband's unwelcome visit prompts one of Anne's best lines, about "the English sense of humor being tolerable only in small doses."
The fretful daughter represents both a tragic break between Eva and Georges over the conditions of Anne's care, and one of the rare moments of familial warmth to grace a Haneke film, as Eva, late in the story, gives her stubborn dad a long-overdue salute. "When I came in earlier, I remembered as a child listening to you two making love. I felt you really loved each other, and we would always be together."
Haneke's rigorously unsentimental take on the most wrenchingly intimate human ties pays huge dividends as we witness a humane and non-didactic philosophical exchange between Georges and Anne over the rituals of her last days. As Georges clings to the empty solace of hospice care, Anne dismisses his arguments out of hand, including the obvious, "But what if it was me instead?" The truly harrowing third act of Amour – the beats that probably drove the stranger near me to crack open emotionally – come as Anne falls into a helpless descent into excruciating pain, punctuated by a humiliating reversion to an almost infantile state where she can only summon the universal sound for mother.
Haneke has said that he wouldn't have undertaken this sad journey without his age-appropriate leads. European cinema buffs will never shake the image of Jean-Louis Trintignant as the closeted queer political henchman in Bertolucci's monumental autopsy of Italian Fascism The Conformist. Nor is it easy to forget Emmanuelle Riva as the disgraced young French woman who rediscovers the meaning of love in the arms of a Japanese architect in Alain Resnais' poetically brutal Hiroshima Mon Amour. There is something about the vast body of his screen roles and her achingly brief screen career that makes them a good match to portray this couple born to be joined at the hip. It's as if Haneke had somehow stumbled across two intuitively right 80something ingenues.