Michael Haneke knows how to make a feel-bad movie. Over his critically acclaimed career he has created a chilly, detached, and starkly unsentimental body of work that turns Hollywood conventions back on themselves. In "Funny Games," he famously and rather pointedly made the audience complicit in the movie's on-screen violence. In the disaster movie "Time of the Wolf," his protagonist -- unlike the star of a standard-issue American blockbuster -- not only fails to rise to the challenges presented to her but fails even to hold the center of the movie. By the end of the flick, she's dispirited and cast to the periphery of the movie's narrative.
Haneke's latest movie, "Amour" -- which won the top prize at Cannes this year -- is an unrelenting look at an aging woman's decline and death and her husband's valiant attempts to look after her in her last days. True to its title, this movie is indeed about love. But it's not about the oft-told beginning of a love affair; it's about the messy "till death do us part" ending of one. The movie is also Haneke's most compassionate, and as a result, it's easily his most affecting.
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Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are a couple who after many decades of marriage are still obviously very much in love. When they return from a concert, they discover that their beautiful old Parisian apartment has been broken into. Nothing has been stolen, but the incident is a portent of the bad things to come. During breakfast not long afterward Anne is suddenly rendered catatonic. Georges struggles to understand what's going on until, just as suddenly, she returns to normal. It is the first of several strokes that will slowly, cruelly rob her of her mobility, her mental faculties, and ultimately her dignity.
Haneke tells this story almost entirely from the confines of the apartment, using long takes, a mostly fixed camera, and no score. This seemingly simple way of making a movie is in fact staggeringly difficult to pull off. Without using most of the cinematic tools in a director's toolbox, Haneke rests all the weight of the movie on his actors' performances. And wow, what performances! Riva, whom film buffs might remember in "Hiroshima Mon Amour," delivers an amazing performance as a proud and sophisticated woman brought low by biology. In one scene, she tries to grit through the reaction of shock and pity by a former student at the state of her condition. It's a brief but heartbreaking moment. Trintignant's role is trickier and less showy, but he is equally masterly as someone who is slowly being crushed under the strain of caring for his ailing wife. His solution is to maintain the illusion of normalcy by closing off the world. When his daughter, Eva (Haneke regular Isabelle Huppert), knocks on his door after he has ignored repeated phone calls, he bluntly tells her, "Your concern is of no use to me."
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I watched this movie a couple of months ago during a midafternoon press screening, filled with some of the most jaded filmgoers you're likely to find. By the end of the movie, when Georges performs a final act of love, the entire audience was on the brink of bawling. Depending on where you are in life, it's the sort of movie that forces you to think about the mortality of your parents, your spouse, and, most uncomfortably, yourself. It is definitely one of the most difficult movies of the year to watch, but it is also easily one of the best.
See the trailer for 'Amour':