Movies love to speed up the dying process, whether it’s the rosy-cheeked young girl who succumbs to a mysterious fatal illness in the final reel or the hero cop suddenly felled by one random bullet after committing an act of extraordinary heroism.
But the actual mechanics of death and dying -- the slow degeneration of mind and body, the subtle shadings in which people gradually lose their mobility and faculties and independence -- those tend to be absent from the big screen.
It’s not compact or convenient. It’s a subject people would just as soon avoid, whether or not they’ve faced it firsthand in their own lives. And frankly, as plots go, it’s exceedingly depressing.
I won’t argue that Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” winner of this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or and Best Picture from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association (of which I am a member), isn’t sad and wrenching and devastating, but it’s those qualities that make it such a powerful piece of moviemaking.
While this might not be the post-gift-unwrapping movie destination of choice this holiday season, the brutal honesty and emotional truth of “Amour” make it one of this year’s best films.
Veteran French film stars Emmanuelle Riva (“Hiroshima mon amour”) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (“My Night at Maud’s”) star as Anne and Georges, an upscale, educated older couple in Paris who live in a sophisticated bubble of art and classical music and books and witty friends. And none of these trappings, as it turn out, will help much when Anne suffers a minor stroke, so brief that it’s practically over before Georges can even respond to it.
But this event marks the beginning of a slow decline for Anne: Soon, she’s lost the use of one side of her body. Before long -- and it’s part of Haneke’s deft grace as a storyteller that the passage of time is more often suggested than literally spelled out -- she becomes bedridden, then loses her ability to speak or control her bodily functions, as Georges devotes himself more and more to her caretaking, even to the exclusion of their ostensibly concerned daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert).
Haneke eschews sentimentality in telling this story, and he allows us to draw our own conclusions about the characters and their motivations. Is Georges being overly controlling? Does Eva really want to participate in her mother’s care, or does she feel obligated to make a show of concern given the circumstances? And does Anne, for her part, even want to stay alive as she fades away? (In their first major discussion following the stroke, she all but tells Georges that she’d rather not be around for the next part.)
With his previous film, “The White Ribbon,” and now “Amour,” Haneke seems to be showing a more humane side than the manipulative and even sadistic streak he revealed in films like “Funny Games.” But even so, he keeps things cool and detached enough to avoid the easy bathos that could come out of a story like this one. He bolts his camera still for long periods and expects you to figure out why, and he shuns anything extraneous.
There’s a sequence late in the film when Georges imagines he’s seeing Anne back at her piano. Almost any other director would, after cutting to Georges, cut back to the empty piano bench, but Haneke trusts us enough to get the moment without spelling it out in big, bold letters.
Riva, 85, and Trintignant, 82, tackle these roles that are both physically and emotionally complex with gusto; any discussion of the ability of actors to continue to do challenging and gut-wrenching work after the age of 75 would have to include these two extraordinary performances.
Is “Amour” hard to watch? Emotionally, yes, but it’s never tedious or meandering or spinning its wheels. It pulses with vitality, even as its main characters cope with life’s passing.