The film opens with the authorities breaking into an apartment because no one has heard from the occupants for some time. It appears to be abandoned. They find the body of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) on her bed, surrounded by flower clippings. No sign of her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is found. The film then flashes back, but in typical Haneke fashion he deliberately does not answer all the questions that this scene generates. I mention this because those unfamiliar with his movies will likely be frustrated, but those of us who have seen his other works will just shrug our shoulders and move on, knowing Haneke will grin and tease people whenever he is asked to explain what happened. It’s a quirk of Haneke’s that he takes great delight in having people beg him for answers to his films.
When the movie flashes back it is several months earlier when both Georges and Anne are fine. They are an elderly couple, probably 80ish, and they enjoy music, especially piano performances. From hints we come to learn that Anne likely performed herself and taught others. One evening they are having dinner and Anne just freezes, completely unresponsive. She comes to in a bit, but remembers nothing. It turns out she has had a stroke. She has an operation to try to address the issue, but it goes badly and she comes home in worse shape than when she left it.
It’s a well-known adage that age robs us of our dignity. That could be the tagline for this movie. The film shows the minutiae of Georges trying to care for all of Anne’s needs – helping her to the toilet, wheeling her around the apartment, etc. At first Anne is not completely disabled; her right side is paralyzed, but she can still feed herself and do some things on her own. Georges is not a young man, though, so even what he does do for her is a strain. Anne then suffers a second stroke that completely incapacitates her. She can’t even feed herself and she is often incoherent. When she can speak she sometimes just repeats the word “hurt” over and over and over for hours.
When their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) visits she is distraught over her mother’s condition. Georges explains that he promised Anne he would not take her back to the hospital or put her in a nursing home. Georges shows that the strain of caring for her is starting to get to him because he snaps at his daughter during this visit. He also fires one of the nurses that are helping him for what seems like little cause (brushing Anne’s hair too roughly), and he even slaps Anne out of frustration when she childishly spits her food back out when he tries to feed her. He tells her he is not going to just let her starve herself to death.
As you can tell, this is not a happy movie. It shows the disintegration of Anne’s life, and Georges’ relationship with her. It’s a story that has been repeated many, many times in real life, though. That’s why I feel that it will probably resonate strongly with those who have been in similar situations. Thankfully I have not. I lost my father when I was still a teenager, but he was away in a Veteran’s Home while I was in college, so I was spared the worst of it. And my mother, although walking with difficulty, is still able to fully care for herself right now. I have read that Haneke based this film on what happened when an aunt of his could no longer take care of herself.
As you can probably also tell, this is not a fast paced movie. We see the slow decline of Anne’s health and George’s connection with her. It shows all the little things that Georges has to do for Anne. Those people who had a traumatizing experience with the 1975 film Jeanne Dielman may have just had a PTSD attack at the prior three sentences. Don’t worry, Amour is nowhere near as mind-numbingly banal as Jeanne Dielman and it runs for only two hours, not more than three. Even at two hours Amour could have been trimmed slightly, though. For instance, there is a dream sequence that runs for a few minutes that seems to serve no purpose other than to provide a cheap scare for the audience before returning to the film.
I mentioned at the top that Riva gives a strong performance. She gets to play her character as fully healthy, partially paralyzed, and then completely dependent on others for her care. She is also brave in that the movie does not shy away from the indignities of her condition. There aren’t a lot of 84 year old women who would allow a movie to show them being washed by someone else in a shower. Speaking of her age, she is the oldest woman ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, surpassing Jessica Tandy by four years. She would also be the oldest winner, beating Tandy again, if she triumphs – and you know the Academy loves someone playing a physically handicapped character. Finally, in a coincidence that would add a huge amount to the story if she wins, her 86th birthday is February 24, 2013 – the same night the Oscar ceremony is held.
I feel Trintignant also gives a good performance. Since Riva got a nomination I’m kind of surprised that Trintignant did not get one as well. The nominations for Best Picture and Best Director probably fall into the “honor just to be nominated” category; I doubt Amour will win the biggest prizes. The nomination for Haneke’s script puzzles me a bit since when it comes right down to it, there’s not a whole lot of script there. It’s more the actor’s performances during many long stretches with no dialogue that really carry the film, not the words they are speaking or the common actions they are doing.
Yes, because this film is mostly in French (there are a few sentence of English), that means subtitles for those that do not speak the language. Some people are deathly allergic to subtitles and avoid them at all costs. I don’t know if I can tell you this is the film that will break you of this fear, but if it sounds interesting then I recommend you give it a try.
Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars