Most films come with press notes for the reviewers. Typically, a synopsis is followed by interviews with the director, actors and other key personnel, all testifying to their movie's amazingness.
After seeing the indelible, deeply moving Amour, I consulted the 17-page press packet, interested in the thoughts of the director, Michael Haneke. But 16 of those pages turned out to be boilerplate credits for the cast and crew. The other page contains only this synopsis:
Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers.
Their daughter, who is also a musician, lives abroad with her family.
One day, Anne has an attack.
The couple's bond of love is severely tested.
Indeed, that is the sum total of the events in Amour, which has nonetheless struck such a resonant chord with Oscar voters that it has received nominations for Best Picture and, for 85-year-old co-star Emmanuelle Riva, Best Actress, along with writing and directing nods for Haneke. In a year filled with big-moment efforts on the Civil War, slavery and Middle Eastern geopolitics, no movie has gripped me with more relevant dread, fear and empathy than Amour, an art house film that, save for a single scene, takes place entirely inside a Paris apartment building. It's a remarkable and, according to press reports, extremely personal film from a director known for chilly bourgeois violence. It's also a career-capper for two giants of the French New Wave: Riva, most famous for Hiroshima Mon Amour, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, whose career includes landmark films with Roger Vadim, Costa-Gavras, Bernardo Bertolucci and Eric Rohmer. On Oscar night, Amour is the one for which I'll root.
Still, having recently witnessed the decline and death of a loved one, I approached Amour with trepidation. Any remaining doubts about the film's intentions are answered in the pre-credits opening scene—which is so graphically, yet marvelously, realized that I hesitate to describe it, other than to say it involves the discovery of a body, and it provides information that will be helpful later in the film. Then, perhaps 30 minutes into the movie, the simplest expression of love passed between Riva's Anne and Trintignant's Georges, and I was reduced to a puddle of sobs. But I quickly composed myself for the rest of this extraordinary but calm, grave and unsentimental film.
After the opening scene, we encounter Anne and Georges, happily married for a half-century, on a typical date night. They've attended a concert given by a pianist who once studied with Anne and has since become a star. Upon returning home to their cozy apartment while talking enthusiastically about the performance, they notice evidence of a break-in attempt. They decide to brush it off and go to bed.
The break-in attempt is a classic Haneke maneuver—he employed similar domestic violations in such earlier efforts as Funny Games, Time of the Wolf and Caché. But where those films led to notoriously blood-curdling events, this break-in is completely symbolic. We never find out more about the attempted crime, but at the risk of glibness, the person who scratched at that door was clearly the Grim Reaper.
The next morning, while the couple sits for breakfast, Anne suffers a mild stroke that renders her temporarily unconscious. The frightened couple seeks medical attention, but after an unsuccessful procedure, they're left with the reality that Anne is not going to get well. Anne makes Georges promise that she will not return to a hospital. The rest of the film is a testament to their fierce coping, and his desperate exertions on her behalf.
Anne's physical decline is relentless and humiliating. The lifelong musician suffers paralysis that ends her days at the apartment's grand piano. We witness the inexorable stations of the cross: earnest efforts at physical therapy, bringing in the orthopedic hospital bed, acquiring a motorized wheelchair, hiring home nurses, becoming progressively unable to bathe or feed oneself.
But what lifts this fine, lovely film far above being just a grim wallow in mortality and gives it enormous power is its attention to the emotional and psychic transformation of the couple. As the shadows of death darken their lives, Anne and Georges' world becomes smaller and more confined. They lose track of days. They find moments of amusement. They look at long-forgotten photo albums. They share memories and listen to favorite pieces of music—including Schubert, so prominently featured throughout Haneke's work. They discover that the healthy people in their lives—the former student, their grown daughter, even the nurse—aren't able to give them sustenance.
Anne and Georges are on a journey, alone and in love.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Love's outer limits."