In "Amour," the Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke infamous for the cruelty he inflicts on his characters in films such as "Funny Games," "Cache" and "The White Ribbon" finally meets a subject more brutal than he is: growing old.
The result is a haunting drama, precise in its chilling details, and showcasing powerfully painful performances by two legends of French film.
It begins, as things like this usually do, with something small. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), married music teachers in their 80s, are eating lunch together and talking about the usual stuff. Then, for a minute, Anne goes blank, unresponsive to Georges' voice or touch. She snaps out of it and tries to continue as normal.
But nothing will be normal from now on.
Visits to doctors reveal that Anne's body is deteriorating. Gradually, she's unable to walk, or talk normally, or do the little things she used to do easily. As Anne's physical condition grows worse, it takes its toll on her emotional state and on Georges' ability to cope.
This is what Haneke means, in the film's acidly ironic title, by love. It's not the easy, carefree love of Georges and Anne's early days, when they shared their music and love for their daughter (played as an adult living abroad by Isabelle Huppert). This is love when it's the hardest, when one person is entirely at the mercy of the other's care, when only love keeps either person from feeling resentment or anger at the situation into which they are locked.
With any other director, this material could easily sink into sentimental quicksand. But Haneke's astringent script and direction, so meticulously focused on the harrowing details of Anne's debilitation and Georges' frustration, keep sentimentality at arm's length. As a result, the movie is a gut-punch, all the way to the end.
The performances are heartwrenching. Riva, who first tasted fame with Alain Resnais' 1959 classic "Hiroshima Mon Amour," earns her late-in-life Oscar nomination by unflinchingly portraying Anne's physical decline and her fierce anger at her body's betrayal.
Trintignant (whose career ranges from "A Man and a Woman" to Costa-Gavras' "Z" to "Three Colors: Red") matches Riva in intensity as Georges endures his wife's growing pain and humiliation. Together, they create a portrait of love patient, kind and self-sacrificing worthy of the film's title.
Two legends of French film partner for director Michael Haneke's tough portrait of an elderly couple facing their toughest moments together.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, Feb. 15.
Rating • PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language.
Running time • 127 minutes; in French with subtitles.