By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 20, 2012 at 6:06AM
Michael Haneke makes it clear from the opening of the film exactly where he's going in "Amour." Kicking off with a literal bang, a team of police officers force open the door of a flat in France, and with masks over their mouths, they walk around the apartment, open the windows and finally find what they're looking for. A dead body, respectfully surrounded by flowers, lays in a bed. And in pure Haneke fashion, this is when he throws up the title card for "Amour," a movie that is, to put it simply, two hours of a woman dying.
Yes, "Amour" is as unrelenting and unflinching as you might expect from the provocateur, but there is tenderness within that marks a bit of a new direction for the helmer. Our introduction to Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) finds them during happier times. The couple attend a concert performance by one of Anne's former students Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), with Haneke having a bit of fun early on with a great lingering shot that sees the viewer watching the audience, watching the pianist as he starts into his first number of the evening. We watch the pair at home and it becomes clear how deeply connected and familiar the duo are with each other. This has been a long, loving relationship. But of course, that happiness doesn't last.
Anne suffers a stroke, and becomes wheelchair bound, with a new hospital style bed installed for her to use at home. But at this early junction, it seems like it will merely be a temporary setback. She does exercises to rebuild the strength in her legs, and while Georges helps her in and out of bed, and to the bathroom, there is still a bit of a hope that things will return back to normal. But then Anne suffers a second stroke, with the right side of her body becoming paralyzed, and Georges has to shoulder even more responsibility, effectively caring for her as she slowly, painfully and inevitably fades away.
"Amour" is a tough, harrowing picture but also one that, curiously, remains optimistic and full of heart. Understandably, Anne wavers between anger and sadness, worried that she will be burden on her husband, and fearful that her final days will be spent in a hospital, and she makes George promise that he will never take her back there. But it's Georges' stoicism in the face of watching his life partner deteriorate that is strangely inspirational. There is no cynicism in the film, and Haneke seems to very much believe that love will triumph over the easier solutions that selfishness and self-preservation can provide. Indeed, their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) -- who keeps a noticeable distance and is in a rocky relationship with Geoff (William Shimell) -- cannot understand how her father can remain so committed to standing by his wife, when options of putting Anne in a hospice, or giving her 24 hour care from a battery of nurses are so easily at hand. But for Georges, it's not even a question.
Running over two hours long, "Amour" never looks away from the ugliness of aging, of losing your grip on reality, and slowly losing all semblance of who you are. But this is the kind of picture that can only succeed if the actors fully commit, and Trintignant and Riva deliver two of the best performances of the Cannes Film Festival so far. Trintignant is the anchor for the "Amour" as we experience the story through his eyes, but it's Riva who pushes the movie beyond just being a chronicle about death. She is simply unbelievable, with a remarkably physical performance that is palpable to watch unfold. She gives so much for Trintignant to react against, and for the audience, we fully understand, in perhaps more detail we care to know, how deep the pain of the flesh and heart is that she feels. We'd have to say at this point, Riva has to be a favorite for an acting award at Cannes.
And yet, despite the bravery of Haneke's film, he hedges his bets and can't help but go for a couple of ineffective, shock style sequences. In the first third of the film, Georges tells a story about a time he saw a film when he was a child, and while he couldn't remember what it was, simply recalling the story moved him to tears -- even more so than when he was actually watching the movie. Is Haneke telling us his "Amour" is better remembered than experienced? And is that out of confidence or insecurity? And a couple of ill conceived dream sequences don't add up to much except to jar the audience out of the carefully cloistered world the film takes place in, with nearly the entire movie set in Georges and Anne's apartment.
Yes, there is an ending here that will once again have people talking, but it's not a stunt so much as a logical extension of the extreme emotional turmoil both Georges and Anne have been through. Beautifully lensed by Darius Khondji, masterfully directed by Haneke, boasting two great performances and a commitment to the narrative that might be too much for some, "Amour" is nevertheless the work of a filmmaker who isn't afraid to ask the big questions about human nature, and coming out of "Amour" it seems the director has hope for us yet. [B+]