4.5 / 5
The first two shots of Amour announce its simple, quiet brilliance. In the first, firefighters break into a Parisian apartment and discover the body of an old woman meticulously placed on a bed, surrounded by flowers. Amour will have no plot surprises in that sense: The woman has died.
But in the next long, static shot, she is alive, part of an audience preparing to watch a concert. In the traditional, narrative sense that matters so much to Hollywood, nothing happens -- but the shot is a little cinematic miracle, as director Michael Haneke manages to make the woman and her husband stand out even while they blend in. They get ready for the performance, they exchange a few unheard words, they could be anyone.
They are Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emannuelle Riva). They are in their eighties, have been married for more years than they likely can count, and are so sure of each others' steady presence that what happens the next morning at breakfast is something neither knows what to do about. It's a perfectly ordinary morning, Anne makes an egg, sits down and vanishes into herself. The moment doesn't last long, but it is the moment that will end a marriage and at least one life -- slowly, with desperate sadness.
Amour is a sad film, and a lovely one, but Haneke seems less interested in eliciting an emotional response from the audience. Like the pianist the audience is assembled to watch in the opening shot, this is a film that demands to be admired for its artistic and technical accomplishments, to be regarded and contemplated more than savored.
It is, clearly, not a film for audiences accustomed to narrative action and dramatic arcs. Amour encompasses a wonderful story told with sweet sympathy, but when it comes to seeing old people on film, it is as far from Driving Miss Daisy or Cocoon than, I imagine, most American audiences are willing to see. Many in the audience I saw it with grew restless, some were perplexed, others riveted to the screen -- but everyone let out a sudden shriek when a moment of shocking violence occurs, one that is so modest by American standards it is hardly worth mentioning, but that elicits a reaction so sharp it speaks to the ways in which viewers will be emotionally wrapped up in Amour even if they find it distant and cold.
With a barely moving camera, meticulously composed shots and almost icy insistence on forcing us to watch the most personal, often humiliating moments of a vivacious spirit whose life is coming to an end, Amour demands patience and rewards it with a thoughtful, complex examination of its title subject. What is love? What does it mean?
Curiously and enticingly, Haneke lets us know only what we see and hear of characters who keep much to themselves. Their adult daughter (Isabelle Huppert) is told her mother has had a stroke well after it happens, and her reaction -- and that of her parents -- is unexpected and, most importantly, unexplained. Haneke knows only these three people could understand.
After that night at the concert and an unseen trip to the hospital, Anne will never leave the apartment again. The entire film, save its first three shots, are contained in this magnificent dwelling that, itself, is ever so slowly falling apart.
Rather soon after arriving home, Anne says it might be better if she were to die now. "Put yourself in my situation," she reasons with her husband. Neither betrays their intellectual's inclination for emotional restraint, but the love in their eyes and heart is evident. Georges refuses, Anne knows she is helpless.
Both Trintignant and Riva are extraordinary -- but she, in particular, astounds with a performance that demands absolutely no dramatic ferocity, no histrionics or artifice.
In Anne, she creates a woman with a long life, lovely at times, no doubt unlovely at others. She is not an easy woman, but she is a soul, one that is slowly fading, and Amour asks, quietly but boldly, if you loved someone, what, in the end, would you do any differently? Love is patient and kind, we have been told; love never fails. Amour reminds us that is true.
Viewed Jan. 18, 2013 -- Sundance Sunset Cinemas