Amour embraces the coldness of death

A husband and wife (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) confront the prospect of dying
A husband and wife (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) confront the prospect of dying
Sony Pictures Classics

Two things are certain in life. One is that death will come for every one of us. The other is that every film Michael Haneke makes will have a fair shot at the Cannes Palme d'Or. Amour, Haneke's much-garlanded latest, is set almost entirely in a well-appointed Paris apartment. As ever, Haneke shoots in a style that is reserved and restrained — in a word, "cold." Although it is in color, I remember Amour in black and white.

At the beginning of Amour, police burst into a locked apartment and discover a corpse — skin purplish-white and crumply like parchment, neatly laid out on a bed — that appears underneath the film's title.

After this opening, which leaves little doubt as to what's in store, we're introduced to an elderly couple, Georges and Anne. Their natural environment is the world of high culture; she is identified as a former piano teacher, like Isabelle Huppert in, well,

The Piano Teacher, and Huppert appears here in a supporting role as the couple's middle-aged daughter.

Anne is played by 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima Mon Amour), and Georges by 81-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant (My Night at Maud's, The Conformist), and our memories of their past films color our response to the all-too-familiar tragedy they will endure, seen in detailed, clinically documented stages. Georges and Anne's long connubial harmony is thrown into discord when health problems suddenly leave half of Anne's body collapsed and useless. This is the first in a succession of attacks that forces Georges to minister to his diminishing wife through her slow decline, his fierce will for her to live pitted against her increasing will to die. Haneke elides the moments of crisis, focusing instead on details of daily caretaking, the process by which a home slowly becomes a hospice. I don't recall the words "Je t'aime" being spoken aloud in the two hours of Amour, but they are constantly reiterated in acts of consideration, tenderness, and tending to toilette.

An intensely private actor capable of almost embarrassingly confessional moments, Trintignant is at his most touching as a man vainly trying to decipher his wife's blurred speech so as not to let go the thread of their lifelong rapport ("There are so many stories I never told you," he says). When Georges dismisses a condescending nurse to defend what's left of his wife's violated dignity, the outrage blazing from his eyes attests to Trintignant's undiminished power.

This humble yet soulful performance is a triumph not only over the humiliation of sickness but over the punitive monotony of Haneke's cinematic deathbed vigil, filmed in static compositions that stare through the apartment's nested series of doorways as Georges putters in and out of frame. The centerpiece involves Trintignant chasing around a stray pigeon trapped in the apartment, presumably signifying his wife's soul (I hesitate to use the word with regard to such a flatly materialist film), longing to be set free from earthly fetters.

Haneke's elegant reserve is meant, perhaps, to allow viewers the space to contemplate the leering face of death, a sort of cinematic memento mori. In keeping within its limited boundaries, in applying an unflinching style to an inevitable process, Amour has a certain perfection to it, but what Haneke expresses — that culture is no protection from the final horror, that death be not proud — is so meager as to make it a single-minded, barren perfection. Haneke remains, by his rules, infallible. So what? A movie in which incident is as spare as it is in Amour can certainly be great; a movie in which ideas and feelings are so sparse cannot.

Sony Pictures Classics

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