Film Review: Amour

Austria’s official selection for Best Foreign-Language Film consideration this year is a two-hander offering Oscar-caliber performances from French greats Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, with Isabelle Huppert added for good measure an

“Grow Old Along With Me, The Best is Yet To Be” is an old line that used to grace ashtrays or needlepoints, but you won’t find that sentiment gracing Michael Haneke’s grim but incredibly poignant Amour. Rather, to paraphrase Dante, “Give Up All Hope, You Who Enter the Theatre” might be more appropriate.

But art-house fans who do venture forth, especially those not yet immersed in their so-called golden years, will be richly rewarded. Deceptively minimal and exacting in what he commits to the screen, Austrian-born, French-based filmmaker Michael Haneke, in films like his Oscar-nominated The White Ribbon, The Piano Teacher, Caché, etc., favors dark corners devoid of humor and sweeteners. Amour is no exception. And again, he doesn’t just deliver a film but a profound experience that throws a harsh light on the human condition.

Amour follows 80-something couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who are retired piano instructors living in a spacious apartment of wood floors, oriental rugs, tall drapes, comfortable decades-old furniture and walls lined with wooden shelves of innumerable books. Haneke doesn’t make the apartment just their home but, shooting almost entirely within it, the viewer’s home as well.

When Anne suffers an attack as a result of a blockage, she returns from the hospital confined to a wheelchair, her right side paralyzed but her mind and spirit all her own. Devoted Georges becomes her caregiver and all seems status quo, even to the point of Anne learning to navigate in a motorized chair. Occasional visits from their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), a pianist who lives abroad with British husband Geoff (William Shimell), don’t ameliorate the situation, as the parent-child relationship is cold and Eva’s focus seems to be on financial and real-estate matters that impact her family. Even her father rejects her offers to help.

On the more positive side, a visit from former student Alexandre (real-life pianist Alexandre Tharaud) lifts the couple’s spirits. He now concertizes and plays a Schubert sonata for them. But the encounter in the lovely living room also suggests what was and is now gone forever in the couple’s lives.

Anne’s condition deteriorates and Georges’ chores become much more challenging. Part-time nurses, either incompetent or abusive, are no help. As he’s done in previous films, Haneke, breaking up his narrative with occasional flashbacks and hallucinatory diversions, takes things to extremes but also conveys the power of love and devotion. Even a pigeon is thrown in for some welcome irony.

Haneke is always fearless in what he presents (there’s no pampering to the crowds) and audiences who take pleasure in great work shouldn’t be fearful. But it will be interesting to see if positive word of mouth performs its magic, or if older mouths too close to the material do some damage.