Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva in AMOUR (Darius Khondji/Sony Pictures Classics)

Written & Directed by Michael Haneke
Produced by Margaret Menegoz, Stefan Arndt, Veit Heiduschika & Michael Katz
Released by Sony Pictures Classics
French with English subtitles
Austria/France/Germany. 127 min. Rated PG-13
With Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Alexandre Tharaud & Isabelle Huppert

Throughout his career—from his first feature, 1989’s The Seventh Continent, about a family’s methodical preparation for suicide, to 2009’s The White Ribbon, about a fascistic small German town before World War I—no one has ever accused Michael Haneke of sentimentality. In his latest film, an intermittently powerful exploration of the reality of death, an elderly Parisian couple deals with the wife’s incapacitating stroke, and it’s no surprise to note that Haneke’s film stays as far away from the sappiness of On Golden Pond as possible. At least until the end.

As in his other films, Haneke dispassionately records narrative events as they unfold (his ace cinematographer is Darius Khondji), such as when former music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) attend a piano recital near the beginning of the film. This sequence follows a disorienting prologue that telegraphs the ending—well, sort of.

Haneke shoots the majority of his film from a medium or long-shot distance, and such visual detachment is broken in startling ways in Amour. As Haneke cuts to close-ups of Georges and Anne, he accentuates the intimacy of their love as well as their pain when her physical health spirals downhill.

As a director, Haneke is masterly; as a writer, rather less so. His films are usually predicated on intentionally shocking displays of inhumanity, but his scripts are thematically blunt and obvious, often mitigating their visceral power. Amour was seemingly designed to prove that the director can treat a humane situation as devastatingly as his best films about

inhumanity, like 71 Fragments of a Chronology of Chance or Cache. However, what begins as an intelligent and harsh examination of the inevitability of death is transformed into a quasi-mystical drama that ultimately avoids dealing with death’s finality.

This change of tone is first hinted at in a bizarre dream Georges has one night, and which is really hammered home in two symbolic appearances by a pigeon (Representing destiny? Mortality? With Haneke, anything’s possible.) in the couple’s beautifully appointed Parisian apartment. The second of which leads directly into an ending that comes as a crashing cop-out after a long buildup. Despite the foreshadowing in the opening shots, the actual conclusion is a soft pillow rather than the hard ground hinted throughout. It treats death

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as an almost surreal escape.

Despite such cynicism, Amour remains a forceful character study, and that’s due mainly to the persuasive acting by two French acting icons, who between them have totaled over a century of on-screen brilliance. Jean-Louis Trintignant (who made his mark with Brigitte Bardot in And God Created Woman) is touchingly vulnerable as a husband not entirely comfortable with emotions—his often stiff walk physicalizes his personality. However, as superb as Trintignant is, it’s Emmanuelle Riva (remarkable in Alain Resnais’ debut feature, Hiroshima Mon Amour, in 1959) who gives an emotionally devastating portrayal of a woman losing control of her body but not her mind. Her astonishingly physical transformations are the movie’s lasting and most profound images—the actress seems to be receding before our eyes.

There are perfectly realized moments of black humor, such as Georges’ description of an awful funeral he attended. His anecdote is interrupted by Anne suddenly blurting out, “There’s no reason to go on living,” which in its suddenness is far more persuasive and incisive than scenes of Anne dealing with being partially paralyzed or even Georges angrily slapping his wife when she spits out water he gave her to drink from a glass she’s too weak to hold.

And despite the haunting piano music of Schubert on the soundtrack, the film’s two subplots seem shoehorned in to make the film a wider panorama of relationships—visits by Alexandre (played by concert pianist Alexandre Tharaud), Anne’s former pupil, the pianist whose recital the couple attends at the beginning of the film; and by their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert, unable to overcome a cliched role of an overly needy daughter). Instead, their appearances mute the film’s attempt to dramatize the ultimate price paid by its protagonist couple.