On Movies: 'Amour,' like love, has many layers
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 2, 2013 - Most feature films about old age, the engaging "Quartet" being the most recent example, sentimentalize the subject. "Amour" doesn't do that. This spare French film casts a cold, unflinching eye on the last years of a long life.
It is well acted and cleanly and concisely directed, with few if any wasted moments, and has received almost universally glowing reviews. "Amour" is only the ninth foreign-language film to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture.
I found "Amour" to be, in many ways, a superb piece of filmmaking, but I also found it to be, at times, a voyeuristic, pitiless examination of the end of life. The director Michael Haneke ("Funny Games," "The Piano Teacher") is not averse to inflicting pain on his characters, and thereby on his audience. With "Amour," I'm not sure the insights gained into the human condition are always worth the pain.
Two celebrated French actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, give superb performances as Georges and Anne, retired music teachers who live in a splendid Paris flat with their grand piano and their memories. They are beloved by their former students. Coming home one night from a concert by one of their acolytes, the young pianist Alexandre Tharaud (playing himself), they discover that someone has broken the lock on the front door.
This unsettling discovery strikes a dissonant chord, clashing with the peaceful, orderly mood inspired by the elegant Schubert sonata Tharaud had been playing. You sense that something bad is going to happen, and it does. Anne suffers a stroke that seems at first nothing more than a forgetful moment, but fairly quickly becomes debilitating. Georges cares for her as her condition grows worse. And worse.
Georges is forced to hire -- and fire -- a nurse. Their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) asks if she can help, but she lives far away and is busy with her own life. Georges replies, "We've always coped, your mother and I."
There has been debate as to the deeper meaning of the title, but it seems apparent that "love" refers to Georges’ devotion to Anne, come what may. Georges’ love is severely tested, and eventually the title takes on an ironic meaning.
"Amour" can be a tough movie to watch. At times, it almost seems as if the director is daring us to stay with him as he puts his two main characters through a cruel, humbling ordeal. But there is no question that the film sees with a clear vision, and what it sees does not make for a happy ending.
Opens Friday Feb. 1