Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly couple living in a book- and sheet-music-lined Paris apartment in Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” are in the twilight years of a long and happy life together. And then everything changes, in an instant; a mundane episode becomes the beginning of the end. They are sitting in their kitchen, like any other day, and suddenly Anne becomes quiet. Her face goes terribly blank; she doesn’t respond to the hand Georges waves in front of her. A light has gone out, and while it soon flickers back on again, it’s the start of a long, painfully slow dimming.
Haneke, who most recently directed the Oscar-nominated “The White Ribbon,” generally takes on dark subjects — it’s impossible to remember “The Piano Teacher,” his grimly compelling 2001 tale of a masochistic affair, without cringing. But “Amour,” though wrenchingly sad, isn’t without joy. We learn little about Georges and Anne’ s past — they were both musicians, they have one daughter (Isabelle Huppert, of “The Piano Teacher”) — but what we know without needing to be told is this couple’s abiding, companionable love for each other. As Anne fades, Georges takes devoted care of her: feeding her, doing her stretches, holding her as she shuffles in a faded imitation of a walk, quietly stroking her hand as she whimpers in pain. There’s no happy ending here, and the film’s opening scenes tell us the tragic conclusion to this story — but love is present, in every frame.
The apartment, caught in elegantly gray light, becomes a character in this quiet film; its many doors, constantly opening and closing, remind us of how isolated and closed-off Anne has become. And the film’s two principal actors, both veterans of French cinema whose careers date back to the 1950s, inhabit their characters with a raw, fearless honesty. After a daydream in which he pictures his wife playing the piano again, Trintignant wordlessly shows us a broken heart. Uncannily, Riva seems to disappear before our eyes, letting us see only hints of the woman Anne once was — through her gaze, or the fierceness of the set of her jaw.
“Amour” isn’t easy to watch, but its rewards are many. In a scene mid-movie, a muddled Anne looks through a photo album. “C’est beau,” she says. “La vie.”
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