The beginning of “Amour,” a best-picture Oscar nominee from Austrian director Michael Haneke, is the story’s end. There will be no spoiler.
Firemen break into a Paris apartment, recoiling at the odor as they discover the body of an elderly woman. She’s laid out on her bed in her Sunday best, surrounded by long-wilted flowers.
From there we cut to a scene in which a stationary camera shoots from center stage of a small theater. We see refined audience members filter in and enjoy a piano concert. Inexplicably, the eye is drawn to an elderly couple.
They are Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who soon return to their fine apartment.
We have been set up. We know that apartment, and the ending.
As with the scene in the theater, our role is set as witnesses, observers of subtle detail, mostly played out before a stationary and unblinking camera.
We will observe the slow, devastating toll of failing health on a couple who love each other.
Anne, an accomplished piano teacher, and Georges, a musician, have an idyllic-looking old age together at the outset. The word “amour” may never be spoken, but we see it clearly in them.
Over breakfast, the morning after the concert, Anne suddenly freezes. Georges cannot rouse her. Then she’s back, unbelieving of what he tells her.
She has had a stroke. There will be more. An operation. A determination to be home and not in a hospital. A series of scenes in which we see Anne become less and less mobile, less and less able to speak, less and less willing to continue living.
And we see Georges, an unresentful caretaker who gradually becomes overwhelmed as she cannot feed herself, bathe herself or go to the toilet.
In between, visits from the concert pianist, Anne’s former student (Alexandre Tharaud, an accomplished pianist in real life), and from Georges and Anne’s daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who lives abroad, seem to bring more discomfort and pain than relief of any kind, though both want desperately to help the situation.
Haneke’s still camera stays away from sentiment, unneeded in a story that quietly provides it. It’s all there in the remarkable performances of Trintignant and especially Riva, who both accomplish levels of truth and honesty that are extremely rare in film.
This doesn’t end well for any of us. Haneke doesn’t seem to be after much more than that realization.
But seeing what happens between a man and a woman who love each other deeply, as one of them inexorably fails, feels at the same time sacred and profane and stunningly human, even as Haneke stays clinically cool in his approach to the material.
We’ve all been there with someone we love. Or will be, maybe even with ourselves. Riva and Trintignant cannot prepare us, but they can, in a way, teach us something about our own humanity as they break our hearts.
“Amour” won the Palm d’Or, the festival’s highest award, at Cannes last year and is heavily favored to win the foreign-language Oscar next month. The film is in French with English subtitles.
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