Every human being’s ultimate nightmare is the subject of “Amour,” in which an eightysomething married couple have to deal with the wife’s declining health. A meticulously made look into end-of-life caretaking and the toll it takes on loved ones, director Michael Haneke’s film is beautifully acted and sometimes excruciating to watch. But the austerity of the filmmaking, and the glacial pace of the movie, rob it of almost all emotional impact.
Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are retired music teachers living in a spacious Parisian apartment filled with books and recordings. One day while eating breakfast, Anne seems to slip into a comatose state, and fails to respond to Georges’ questions. It is soon discovered that she has a blocked carotid artery, and when surgery to correct the condition goes awry, Anne becomes paralyzed on her right side.
From this point on, Amour is an almost textbook look at how Georges deals with Anne’s condition, as it goes from bad to worse. There are physical therapy sessions, the hiring of caretakers, lessons on how to change adult diapers, and intense discussions with the couple’s adult daughter (Isabelle Huppert). Through all this, George seems to be a paragon of loving care, but as Anne suffers a second stroke and becomes severely functionally impaired, the pressure on her husband begins to show.
Haneke has gone out of his way to make his film as claustrophobic as possible, setting nearly every scene in the couple’s apartment. This makes sense on one level, as a way to show how Anne’s condition has completely taken over her and Georges’ lives. He has also extracted beautifully modulated performances from screen veterans Trintignant (“The Conformist,” “Z”) and Riva (“Hiroshima Mon Amour”).
But the director, who has become controversial for his bleak style in films like “The White Ribbon” and “Funny Games,” has made a crucial misstep in this film. By adopting an outside-looking-in tone, he has made “Amour” much too rigid and clinical. For all its virtues, the film is essentially a long, slow slog into oblivion, with the viewer becoming an unengaged spectator.
“Amour” comes to us already wrapped in glory – it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, and has multiple Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Actress (“Riva”). But its overly intellectualized style, the perfection of every scene, seems almost anti-human. Instead of providing a cathartic emotional experience, and connecting at a deep level with the fears all of us have about how we end our lives, “Amour” comes off as a movie that only a film scholar could truly love.