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Love story


It may be, as Benjamin Franklin once said, that in this world nothing is certain except death and taxes. But most of us spend a lot more time thinking about taxes. We have to deal with that subject once a year, whereas death is only going to come our way once, so why worry about it? Better to take the attitude of Groucho Marx: “I intend to live forever, or die trying.”

So what are the commercial hopes for a film that takes an unflinching look at dying as a man in his 80s struggling to care for his wife after she suffers a stroke? And if the theme doesn’t put you off, are you going to be any more likely to see it if you’re familiar with the previous work of the filmmaker, the Austrian Michael Haneke, whose oeuvre is often called “cruel” even by his admirers? (His most notorious work, the two versions of Funny Games, exists to drive audiences out of the theater: If you watch it all the way through, he feels he has failed.)

I admit that I wasn’t looking forward to seeing Amour, much as I have admired some of Haneke’s other films, especially The White Ribbon. But you can’t ignore the overwhelming critical praise the film has received—of the 41 major critics surveyed by the website, 23 give it a 100 percent rating, and only five give it less than 80 percent. And of course there are the Oscar nominations, rare for a foreign language film: Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Director, and Actress.

Haven’t seen it, I couldn’t recommend it to everyone, at least not without noting that you need to be in a dispassionate from of mind regarding the subject: If you have just suffered the loss of a loved one, or are dealing with a declining elder, you’re probably not going to appreciate it. Wait for the DVD.

That said, the title of this movie is not Mort, but rather Amour. It is a love story, a kind of ultimate love story.

Georges (the veteran French star Jean-Louis Trintignant, for whom Haneke wrote this) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, star of the classic Hiroshima, mon amour) are retired music teachers living in a comfortable but modest Paris apartment. Evidence is that they have had a rich and fulfilling life. We first see them at the recital of one her former students (pianist Alexandre Tharaud, playing himself), a sequence shot from the stage so that we see only the audience.

One morning at breakfast Georges asks Anne a question and she doesn’t respond. She sits, silent and unmoving, for a few minutes, and when she recovers refuses to believe that anything happened.

From there the film proceeds, steadily and relentlessly. It’s not clear how much time passes: at least several months, perhaps a year. Doctors can do nothing for Anne, and after a spell in a hospital she makes her husband swear never to take her away from home again. When necessary, he hires a nurse. Otherwise he is alone in a task from which he realizes there is no returning.

We know how the film is going to end—it opens with the discovery of Anne’s body by firemen breaking into the apartment—so there’s no false hope. But neither is there any false sentiment, aside perhaps from a visit by daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert, star of Haneke’s The Piano Teacher), who doesn’t know how to deal with the situation.

As always, Haneke’s style is cool and composed: There are few if any closeups, minimal cutting, no musical score. The camera remains at a respectful distance, making us aware of the apartment as a force in these lives, holding them together and perhaps keeping the world away. It’s this coolness that makes the story bearable. That he touches us is sufficient; there’s no need to torture us.

Watch the trailer for Amour

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