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Love may endure, even though the body is destined to decay. This story about the end-of-life stage of a Parisian couple’s marriage and their physical bodies is truthful if not pretty. Amour provides an unsentimental portrait of the indignities of a body – and a shared life – in decline. Curiously, this film by the award-winning Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, whose work is best known for its emotional austerity, is the most tender and poignant work of his career.
Already a winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and the Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes (among other awards), Amour is also a strong contender in this year’s Oscars race. Strengthening its chances are the supple performances at its core by those titans of the French cinema, Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima, mon amour). Playing an elderly couple, Georges and Anne, they haven’t the nubile bodies and uncreased faces we’re accustomed to seeing magnified on the big, silver screen, but their vulnerable and unadorned presence commands our attention and sympathies nevertheless.
Amour’s opening sets us up for something of a mystery thriller as we watch firemen break down the locked door of a Parisian apartment where the foul odor that emanates from it is, no doubt, the reason they were summoned. Anyone who has seen previous Haneke films – such as The Piano Teacher, The White Ribbon, Caché, and the French- and English-language versions of Funny Games – might understandably brace themselves at this juncture for the kind of random and inexplicable violence that is central to those movies. Yet, here, the only enemies are time and the inexorability of corporeal decay – things that cannot be conquered by undying love, but only confronted and managed with compassion and grace. Younger viewers nearer to voicing their vows of “’til death do us part” may find Amour more of a daunting, cautionary tale than older viewers, who are likely to find in the film a respectful and decorous treatment of the inevitable.
Georges and Anne live in genteel, middle-class retirement, going out to piano recitals and maintaining their privacy in their well-appointed Parisian apartment. Then, during breakfast one morning, Anne is overtaken by a seemingly catatonic lapse which quickly passes. The next time we see her, however, she is in a wheelchair. Once home from the hospital, her condition continuously deteriorates, while Georges and some hired help attend to her physical needs (which involve diapers, personality changes, and many of the other mortifications of one’s last days). The couple’s daughter (Huppert) stops by to help, but it’s clear her interests lie more with her own messy life than with her parents’ needs.
As it must have been throughout their long marriage, so it is at the end: Georges and Anne are a world unto themselves. Love means being helpmates throughout all of life’s stages. Death is part of love’s bargain, and Haneke lays this fact bare.