Amour (PG-13) (127 min.) — In previous films, Michael Haneke has shown a ruthless fascination with cruelties that people are capable of inflicting on one another. They are quietly imposed, like the video voyeur of Cache, or appalling as child abusers in The White Ribbon and the home invasion violence of Funny Games, a movie Haneke remade in English to share the nihilism with more viewers, convincing me he's as callous as those intruders are with victims.
It was therefore with trepidation that I approached Amour, Haneke's exploration of an aging husband and his physically deteriorating wife, essentially alone in their apartment. Regardless of five Academy Award nominations including best picture, director and actress, Amour seemed too close for any degree of comfort to experiences with my parents. And what would this seemingly heartless filmmaker do with such material?
In fact, Haneke is typically unflinching with Amour's story, denying any sentimentality or hope for an uplifting resolution. That the movie ends in death is obvious from the beginning, when policemen break down the door of the apartment and discover a withering corpse inside. Yet this is a movie of profound insight and compassion that, although muted, is more than I expected from Haneke. Amour is depressing only if you immediately dismiss it. To endure it — and yes, endure is an appropriate word — is to discover truths usually ignored in cinema.
We meet Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) in her final evening of lucidity, a cultured couple attending a piano concert. That night Anne has trouble sleeping. The next morning she has trouble responding to Georges' conversation, the result of a stroke. After hospitalization she returns home, her speech and mobility paralyzed. Anne will never leave the apartment alive again.
Georges is a considerate husband, caring for her needs as long as he's able and open to outside assistance when necessary. Yet something in their interactions suggests Georges hasn't always been a model husband. Perhaps caring now is an apology for then. Haneke's screenplay doesn't serve up anything easily, but clues are subtly provided, in reminiscences, hallucinations and the mildly impatient attitude of the couple's daughter (Isabelle Huppert).
Amour proceeds at a funereal pace, with Anne's condition worsening and Georges' emotional endurance fading. This is a movie almost too painful to watch at times, yet so masterfully composed and acted — Riva absolutely deserves her Oscar nomination, while Trintignant was robbed — that it's impossible to turn away. Nothing about the title is ironic as I feared from Haneke; Amour is a somber, affecting exhibition of "love" in its most challenged state, after hope evaporates and nothing remains except memories.
Only in Amour's final minutes does anything shocking and perplexing occur that approaches Haneke's earlier works. The filmmaker's newfound sense of mercy still may be interpreted as cruel. As usual, Haneke doesn't care what viewers think, only that they feel something. With Amour, it's the rare feeling of watching a masterpiece unfold.
Shown with English subtitles. Opens Friday at Baywalk 20 in St. Petersburg. Amour will be shown this weekend at Citrus Park 20 and Veterans 24 in Tampa, and Regency 20 in Brandon as part of the Academy Awards Showcase series. A