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Story of a dying

Amour takes viewers to a hard and necessary place

By Philip Martin

This article was published February 15, 2013 at 2:57 a.m.

anne-emmanuelle-riva-is-a-retired-piano-teacher-whose-health-takes-a-catastrophic-turn-in-amour-the-powerful-domestic-drama-by-austrian-director-michael-haneke-that-has-been-nominated-for-a-best-picture-oscar

Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) is a retired piano teacher whose health takes a catastrophic turn in Amour, the powerful domestic drama by Austrian director Michael Haneke that has been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

— What a movie does is put us in places we wouldn’t otherwise be. The camera is our surrogate; we experience what it sees, as it waits unblinking in the corner or pushes up close to the action. In the best movies we forget about the camera, and about the layer of insulating safety it affords us. (We leap when the shark attacks.) We wake from the best movies as witnesses; we feel the truth of what we have seen and heard, and though we know it’s only a movie — just as we know in lucid dreams that we’re actually asleep — we cannot help but feel changed by what we have seen.

It should be said at the outset that while Michael Haneke’s Amour is a terrific movie, it is also a difficult and unsettling experience and one ought not expect to enjoy it in the way that we enjoy a tumult of puppies or the fetching smiles of little children. It is the sort of movie that some people will inevitably describe as boring or tortuous. It is a movie that will make you sad and perhaps depress you. If you mean to use the movies as an escape, as a means of temporary disengagement from the world’s brutality, you might be well advised to miss this one, to go see John McClane cheerfully save the world again. I am only giving you fair warning: Amour is a tough and daunting film.

If you know something about the Austrian director Haneke, then you probably aren’t surprised by that. His work is fiercely unsentimental, and at times I have found it cold and inhumane. He doesn’t give our kind much of a break; he understands the petty hypocrisies inherent in our civilization, and he has no pity for those deluded by pretty lies. At his best— in 2005’s Cache, 2009’s The White Ribbon or the current film — Haneke is one of our most important difficult filmmakers, an elliptical storyteller who questions the existence of a verifiable reality beyond individual perception. His irreligious work allows for mystery, or at least for the possibility of human misperception, and even for a certain tender poetry. But it is not meant to flatter the audience.

Amour — French for “love” — begins with the breaking in of reality on an ample and old-fashioned Parisian apartment, where the police find the body of an old woman who apparently has been dead for some time. Then we move back in time, to meet an elderly but alert French couple played by two titans of the French New Wave, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant.

Haneke’s casting is important here, because it allows us to imagine these old people as young and fierce, as they were in the movies that made these actors famous. For some of us, the words “Emmanuelle Riva” conjure nostalgia for a certain kind of sexy intelligence — in Hiroshima, Mon Amour (1959), a very important movie to me, she played a French actress in Tokyo after the war, breaking off her brief affair with a Japanese architect. Then in Leon Morin, Priest (1961), she played a young widow engaging Jean-Paul Belmondo’s titular priest in a long-running theological discussion that might be read as an attempted seduction. Similarly, Trintignant became famous playing opposite Brigitte Bardot in Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman (1956) and Anouk Aimee in A Man and a Woman. The last movie I’d noticed Trintignant in was Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Red, nearly 20 years ago.

To see them here, as people in their 80s, is shocking — though we immediately understand what they might have been, the potentialities buried within the old bodies. Too often our movies present older folks as inconsequential beings, figures to be exploited for comedy or to deliver homilies. That is not what Haneke has in mind.

What Haneke has in mind is the story of a dying, and not that of a good death rescuing a weary soul. Soon after we meet this couple, things begin to go wrong. The woman has a stroke, and a medical procedure fails. Things begin to fall apart, and it is heartbreaking to watch Riva pretend to die slowly knowing that she knows her own end is inevitable and may be no less difficult. We watch Trintignant watching, and we understand his frustration, helplessness and sense of impending loss.

Haneke closes his movie in after Riva becomes ill, his cameras stand in the apartment, grinding away, catching the motes of dust and the visits, from the smug student (the couple were music teachers) who comes bearing his new CD, and the middle-aged daughter (a superb Isabelle Huppert) who breezes in and out of their lives strewing crumbs of unhelpful advice. She means well, perhaps, but there’s a palpable impatience in her air that her father cannot help but sense. And resent.

But though Amour is a severe film, it is not an unlovely one, and those stoic cameras catch, in the slant of light through the apartment windows and in the tight, high bookcases, evidence of beauty and lives lived well. Darius Khondji’s cinematography is stately. The acting is immaculate. And unlike most of Haneke’s films, there is room for music here, little bits of Schubert played by the pianist Alexandre Tharaud (who also plays the smug former student).

Yet though there are a couple of moments of visual grace and glimpses of tenderness, there’s nothing here to indicate that Haneke has gone soft on us. Amour is hard to watch, but we ought not to imagine that we will never have to look at hard things. Amour puts us in a place where many of us will someday be.

Amour 91

Cast: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert Director: Michael Haneke Rating: PG-13, for thematic material and language Running time: 127 minutes

In French, with English subtitles

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 02/15/2013

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