Starring: Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, William Shimell
Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, painful intimacy, brief profanity and fleeting nudity
Strong performances are buried beneath insufferable directorial flourishes
By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic
However impressive Emmanuelle Riva’s starring role in “Amour” — and her work transcends mere words such as brave and raw — the film itself is a colossal yawn.
At all times, and in every possible way, writer/director Michael Haneke refuses to grant access to these characters; they’re little more than two-dimensional ciphers. Dialogue is sparse, Haneke often preferring the intimate intensity of searching gazes amplified by extreme close-ups. He and cinematographer Darius Khondji also favor faraway compositions, with people occupying only a small portion of an otherwise quiet and static room.
Haneke holds, at great length, on the most mundane behavior — unpacking groceries, donning clothing, eating meals — to a point well beyond aggravation. This really isn’t a film, or a least not a narrative in the conventional sense: more a lengthy tone poem or mood piece.
The wafer-thin story could be scrawled on a postcard: Retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Riva) are enjoying their twilight years in a spacious city apartment laden with culture: books, music, a piano. She suffers a sudden stroke, then in time endures a second, much more crippling one; she declines before her husband’s eyes. And ours.
He insists on caring for her, coping as best he can. Which, ultimately, isn’t too well.
That’s all, folks.
So yes, fine: Haneke’s emphasis on the routine and commonplace underscores the degree to which Anne finds it harder and harder to accomplish any of the thousand-and-one little tasks that we take for granted each day. Dressing, eating, moving across a room. Going to the bathroom.
But all this would mean more — and become more poignant — if we had the slightest clue about this couple, prior to this tragedy. They appear to have done well professionally; money isn’t an issue. But did they get along? Were they satisfied with living through the artistic successes of students who went on to become famous? Are they kind and honorable? Do their deserve our sympathy?
They have one child: an adult daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who appears to have married unhappily. Her personal life is sketched even more superficially, her relationship with her parents strained at best, possibly even estranged. She and her father talk like casual back-fence neighbors, rather than intimates. We’ve no idea why. At best, Eva behaves like a self-centered dolt; at worst, she could be actively insensitive. Impossible to be sure.
Huppert’s performance is brittle and clumsy, as if she’s trying to fabricate behavior on the spot, rather than having studied a script and rehearsed a part.
These people are so superficial, their lives so claustrophobic — we spend the entire film within the rooms of this apartment — that Haneke’s dry, leaden touch minimizes the very emotional intensity we should be experiencing. It’s almost as if Haneke and Riva are working against each other, with the director undercutting, minimizing and muting his lead actress’ achingly powerful performance.
Yes, fleeting moments are unexpectedly powerful, and — as the narrative progresses — Haneke imbues this apartment with an unsettling atmosphere of creepy tension that strongly echoes Roman Polanski’s “Repulsion,” wherein Catherine Deneuve slowly went mad within the walls of her self-imposed apartment prison. But Haneke’s snapshots of emotional brilliance inevitably are undone by prolonged stretches of … nothing.
Then, too, there’s the mystery of this story’s prologue, and the questions raised by the emergency crew that removes a barricade in order to enter the apartment. Barricaded, from the outside? Say what?
This, actually, is where the saga concludes; the story then unfolds as an extended flashback.
Anne suffers her first stroke while she and Georges share a meal; she simply freezes, her expression blank, as if all the inner synapses have failed to fire. Unable to rouse her, his concern mounting by the moment, Georges prepares to call a doctor. But then, just as suddenly, Anne is back, utterly unaware of the missing few minutes.
He wants her examined anyway; pride and defiance chase each other across Riva’s expressive face as Anne objects. He apparently perseveres; some period of time passes, and she returns home after unsuccessful (botched?) medical intervention, her entire right side now paralyzed. (It should be mentioned that Haneke appears to take a rather dim view of the French health care system.)
They adjust to this new reality, Anne growing more frustrated by what she’s no longer able to do or enjoy, Georges increasingly troubled by her unwillingness to cope.
They entertain one unexpected visitor: a former student (Alexandre Tharaud) now turned concert pianist, who takes a chance and just “drops in.” The atmosphere is tense, uncomfortable; the visit is short. When he later sends them one of his CDs, Anne cannot listen to it, apparently reminded too much of what she’s no longer able to do at a piano.
Then, precisely at the midpoint of this 127-minute slog, one scene cuts to the next and whoosh … suddenly Anne is in bed, now infirm, having suffered another, much more severe stroke. We’ve no idea how much more time has passed; indeed, it’s impossible to clock the passage of time to any degree. In a sense, time doesn’t exist: no doubt another deliberate touch on Haneke’s part, and just as irritating as so many others.
Nurses become part of the routine; one proves a disaster, an exchange so brief that we wonder if some relevant scenes have been chopped away. Her “exit wages” are 780 euros, surely a suggestion that she has been present for at least several days.
Haneke can’t be bothered with such details. He’s far more interested in (for example) showing the paintings — one … after another … after another — on the walls of this apartment. Paintings with no people, further symbolizing Anne and Georges’ enforced isolation. We get it, we get it.
Riva has garnered the lion’s share of acting attention, and she certainly deserves the accolades; you’ll not soon forget the heartbreaking, painful intimacy of her performance (this despite — never because of — Haneke’s intolerable filmmaking style). We ache for the wearing away of Anne’s dignity, and her increasingly desperate efforts to cling to the more radiant self she must have been.
In fairness, though, Trintignant deserves equal credit for a performance that is less “showy” but just as strong. We see the depth of love in Georges’ eyes, the growing despair as the woman he knows withdraws from him … in part because of the strokes, but also of her own doing, because she can’t bear him to see her like this. Trintignant radiates mounting grief at a level that becomes painful.
Or it would be painful, anyway, given better circumstances. Under Haneke’s guidance, however, Riva and Trintignant too frequently act up a storm in a vacuum. We can’t help being relieved when the screen finally goes dark: not for any sense of closure to this sad, dreary saga, but simply out of gratitude for the bloody film being over and done with.
A best picture nomination? Best direction? Best writing?
Gimme a break.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com