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'Amour' Challenges Concepts Of Love, Commitment

Catherine Green |
January 21, 2013 | 9:35 p.m. PST


A title like "Amour" evokes somewhat specific expectations of romance.

And featuring a cozy evening date and the intimate, mundane banter only happily married couples can pull off without seeming stifled, most of the opening sequence in Michael Haneke’s latest film would fit the bill. 

But it’s clear from a jarring first scene that might be better suited for a French-language episode of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" that the "Funny Games" director will test preconceived notions of what love really looks like. 

Anne and Georges live a quiet life together in Paris. Both retired music teachers in their 80s, they’ve slipped into an easy routine: eating meals huddled around a small kitchen table, sliding into house shoes and sweaters upon arriving home from their low-key outings. But their sanctuary is thrown when Anne has an attack during breakfast one morning. She goes mute, and seems not to register the world around her or Georges’ pleading for a response. 

One unsuccessful surgery later, Anne is partially paralyzed, restricted to a wheelchair with one hand tucked in close to her body. Georges becomes her full-time nurse, and the shifting dynamic between them forms the backbone of the film.

It’s not an easy question for the audience: How would they adjust if the person they loved most was suddenly fully incapacitated? Jean-Louis Trintignant does a beautiful job as Georges in portraying a degree of love and unconditional commitment most of us like to think we could embody under such circumstances. 

In their new normal, Anne and Georges seem to have little time or energy for traditional clichés of love. The audience never sees them kiss, or even utter the three-word phrase that typically confirms attachment. Intimacy comes through more powerfully in moments of vulnerability. In several scenes, we watch Georges embrace Anne to help her shuffle from wheelchair to bed or the bathroom, their faces close, breath labored. These moments grant insight to the couple’s constant struggle together, and make real the chemistry that felt charming but hollow at film’s start.  

Their golden years dynamic is authentic in its snags as well. As the couple grows accustomed to Anne’s deteriorating condition, their back-and-forth dips into snark and blunt honesty — as it would in the real-world kitchen exchanges we keep hidden from friends and colleagues. Haneke allows his characters to be flawed, curt, petty and stubborn. They become exasperated by the other’s shortcomings or premature assumptions. But they often realize their own faults, apologizing to mend and move on in illustrations of a mature, big-picture mentality few of us can muster.

That level of understanding likely comes out of necessity. The demands on Georges’ love and physicality grow to the point of overwhelming the old man as his beloved’s body and mind wither. And though the focus throughout is on Georges’ experience of helplessness, Emmanuellle Riva must be credited here for an outstanding performance as a woman trapped inside her own increasingly decrepit body. 

Haneke’s restraint in storytelling has much to do with the accompanying sense of authenticity. The director’s stark presentation allows us to wallow in the fragility of these people. There is no soundtrack — the only music heard is played live in scene by one of Anne’s former piano students, or on the stereo as Georges heartbreakingly remembers the talent of his once-fully abled wife. The film is composed of long, languishing takes. We see the tension and grieving acceptance play out between Anne and Georges and their somewhat tiresome adult daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), whose visits seem only to inconvenience and pain the aging couple. 

The sensory freedom Haneke bestows is so much that it is in fact constricting at times. We are forced to be there with Anne and Georges, to feel for ourselves the burden of two bodies breaking down. 

Throughout, though, their observations and memories offered in quiet bedside chats remind us of the strength of their union. They are the most qualified to characterize the other, painting in broad but precise strokes. It’s Anne who we hear encapsulate Georges’ person when she says early on something along the lines of, “You are sometimes a monster. But you are kind.”

Reach Editor-in-Chief Catherine Green here. Follow her here.



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