Grade: B+ (RENT IT)
“AMOUR” IS THE provocative title to Michael Haneke’s latest and most funereal film to date. Anyone familiar with either “The White Ribbon” or “Funny Games” will look skeptically on such a director delivering any kind of love-story in the traditional mold. Yet, like its nakedly romantic title,” “Amour” is indeed a romance – Haneke-style. It centers around the agonizing last days of Anne Laurent, a lifelong music teacher and Parisian esthete who inhabits a quiet apartment alongside her husband Georges. The Laurent home is sparsely decorated – a few fine rugs, a grand piano, a ceramic lamp in Hermès orange – and it reflects their quiet, introverted lifestyle. They are visited by their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) on occasion, but they prefer their record collection and nightly glass of wine (alone). Still, they foster nothing but intimacy between each other and with Eva who confesses to her father that her husband is having an affair and that her marriage is in crisis. Sitting at a distance, Georges listens with the impassive stare of an analyst.
Anne looks a bit livelier when their former student Alexandre Tharaud (as himself) comes to call; when the man inquires about his maestro’s recent illness, Anne changes the subject and asks him to play the piano for them. It was Tharaud whom the couple had gone to see at the film’s start. Haneke gives us the wide shot of the music hall – a shot reminiscent of the puzzling last scene in his “Caché” – and we must find the Laurents politely waiting for the recital to begin. The shot lasts longer than one expects and it demands that we look harder at Anne and Georges, and, it would seem, ourselves as another audience, another mirror. Less ingenious is the symbolism of the pigeon which keeps trapping itself in the Laurents’ apartment; at first, it’s set free and later, it’s wrapped in a blanket and held closely to Georges’ chest. Such catch-and-release can be found at the end to James Ivory’s “The Remains of the Day” (1993) where the bird is an obvious stand-in for a character whose wings have been clipped.
Anne is played with the deepest pathos by Emmanuelle Riva, who is 85-years-old and now the oldest nominee for Best Actress in Oscar history. She will likely lose to a 22-year-old named Jennifer Lawrence for “Silver Linings Playbook.” But don’t overlook, as Georges, Jean-Louis Trintignant. He and Anne carry on like any ordinary elderly couple: morning, noon and night, they occupy a cozy corner of their kitchen where they share tea and nostalgia. All that changes when Anne experiences a lapse in consciousness, the first tremor of her impending illness. Georges panics as Anne stares into space, and even more so after she appears to have no recollection of her seizure-like absence. Anne’s health deteriorates quickly and after a series of strokes, she finds herself confined to bed and reliant on Georges to feed, dress, and wash her paralyzed body.
“Amour” is about one woman’s dignity in the face of certain death, but it’s also about a husband and the burden of devotion. Georges has a slight limp and we watch as he labors about the apartment, as if under house-arrest, in his new role as Anne’s nurse. We are almost certain, given the opening shot of Anne in her funeral bier, that Georges will become Anne’s mercy-killer. Which is to say that Haneke’s idea of true love is that it is always a commitment and only sometimes a crime.