Director Michael Haneke's "Amour" -- a multiple Oscar nominee and a Golden Globe winner -- is the one of the best films of 2012 and certainly the most haunting. But there also is such emotional intensity that at times, it can be hard to watch.
At the heart of this contemplation of life, love, aging, illness and death -- the full circle of the human condition -- is the relationship between Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a long-married couple who are still vital, culturally attuned and intellectually sharp in their early 80s. Then one day, Anne simply starts slipping away.
It's Anne's body that fails her. She gets medical help, but suffers a stroke that leaves her paralyzed on her right side. At times, she simply stares off into nothingness, disconnected from the world around her and from Georges. But her mind is still functioning, and in that mind grows a need -- a need to die.
Anyone who has watched a loved one drift toward death will recognize what Haneke puts on the screen with such immense grace and power. On the part of Georges, there is frustration over the dissipation of the life the couple lived and a denial that initially all but obscures the reality of the situation. On the part of Anne, there is a battle between a desire to cling to life and that often overwhelming need to let go.
This, of course, could have been overly melodramatic. But Haneke ("A Prophet," "White Ribbon"), who also wrote "Amour," approaches his subject matter with such restraint that if the film has a problem, it is that it becomes at times too detached from the emotions of his characters, too cold in its view of Georges and Anne. At the same time, though, the coolness of Haneke's approach and the imagery he chooses to use (a look here, a gesture there) gives "Amour" its dignity and emotional charge.
Haneke also has chosen his actors wisely. Trintignant and Riva are icons of French cinema. Trintignant has been seducing audiences since Claude Lelouch's "A Man and a Woman" in 1966 and Eric Rohmer's "My Night at Maud's" in 1969. Riva, while not quite as well-known, made a stunning debut in Alain Resnais' 1959 classic, "Hiroshima Mon Amour." She was beautiful then, and she is just as beautiful now.
Both Trintignant and Riva give extraordinarily nuanced and thoughtful performances (the way Trintignant shows emotion with only his eyes is almost a master class in film acting). But it is Riva who grabs your attention. Not only is her performance intelligent, but it is also physically and emotionally courageous as she portrays her character's slow deterioration. In one scene, her subtle reaction to Georges' giving her a drink of water rings true, encapsulating all her anger at dying.
In its way, Riva's work is as audacious a bit of acting as Marion Cotillard's in the recent "Rust and Bone," in which the actress portrays an active, vibrant young woman who loses her legs in a freak accident.
As a director and writer, Haneke is best known for his very unsentimental view of life and the clarity (someone would say coldness) with which he views his characters. As in "Amour," his films end in ambiguity, rarely providing audiences an easy emotional charge that serves as payoff before leaving the theater.
But the irony is, by scrupulously adhering to his style on "Amour," he has created a wrenching film that is sure to bring tears -- a lot of tears -- to your eyes. It also manages, in many ways, to affirm that love is worth sharing and life is worth living, even in the most final of days.
Follow Charlie McCollum at Twitter.com/charlie_mccollu.
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Rating: PG-13 (for intense moments)
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva and Isabelle Huppert
Director: Michael Haneke
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes. In French with subtitles.