At first, “Amour” may seem like a departure for Austrian director Michael Haneke, whose oeuvre includes disturbing, violent dramas “Caché” and “The White Ribbon”. But as the film unfolds, you realize no other filmmaker could have created it.
Amour is no sentimental, rose-coloured love story. Not by a long shot. You could say it's a different kind of horror movie – one that depicts true love not as a giddy joy but as a nightmarish trap. This drama, about the deterioration of the marriage of an elderly French bourgeois couple, is as dark as anything Haneke has made, spiraling from understated happiness to understated agony. Despite the intimate setting and the focus on interpersonal drama, it's not without its sudden shocking moments. It's full of the director's stylistic trademarks: the static, dialogue-driven long takes; the ambiguous ending that demands to be discussed afterwards; and, most notably, that slow, looming sense of dread, during which you know something bad's going to happen. You just know.
At the centre of the film are Anne and Georges, played by one-time French New Wave stars Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant. They're a married couple in their eighties, both former music teachers and performers, seemingly enjoying a quiet retirement together by attending concerts and collecting art. One morning, during breakfast at home, Anne has a stroke that paralyzes her right side and leaves her unable to walk.
The relationship begins to change drastically, and we watch how the awkward strain of looking after Anne slowly eats into the pair's lifelong bond. More tension is added when their concerned daughter, Eva, played by Isabelle Huppert, makes periodic visits and criticizes Georges' decision to keep Anne at home rather than in a hospital (as per Anne's wishes).
“We've always coped, your mother and I,” Georges tries to assure Eva early on. But a second stroke turns Anne into a bed-ridden, elderly infant, barely able to communicate and often lost in childhood hallucinations. Georges' total devotion to her care never wavers, despite his frustration.
Through this, the film shows us some sobering truths about what “l'amour” really is: a never-ending sacrifice, even one that often seems to border on fruitless. “Imagination and reality have little in common,” Anne states early on, an inadvertent commentary on the surface appearance of their relationship – and on the nature of love itself.
Reportedly inspired by the final days of his rheumatism-afflicted aunt, Haneke shows all of Georges' and Anne's actions straightforwardly, with an empathetic but unblinking eye, bearing no judgement or excuses for them. It doesn't hurt that the acting is amazing. Riva, who received an Academy Award nomination yesterday for this role, is brave and extraordinary all the way through, capturing Anne's descent from independent and confident to helpless and exposed. But that shouldn't take anything away from Trintignant's performance, a quiet, graceful study of inner turmoil and determined loyalty that never misses a beat.
Amour won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Festival, and now it has five Oscar nods. While the last few months have been packed with some excellent and fascinating movies – Life of Pi, Lincoln, The Master, Django Unchained, even Skyfall – this one tops them all. It does so with deceptive simplicity and passionate honesty, saying so many profound things about love, life and death with so little fanfare. No other movie of the past year will awaken and disturb you as much.