There may be no more emotionally devastating film this year than Amour, an intimate and gripping chamber drama in the Ingmar Bergman style. That it’s every bit as good as Through a Glass Darkly or Winter Light suggests that its writer and director, the renowned Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (his two most recent films have both taken home the Palme d’Or from Cannes) is currently doing the best work of his career. Because he has frequently approached excruciating subject matter—sadism, murder, terrorism—with an air of cool reserve, and because he often enjoys playing mind games with his audiences, he has developed a reputation as a cruel, post-modern prankster, when in fact his films have always been grounded in a humanism that, at bottom, could be described as downright old-fashioned. That humanity comes through clearly here; gone are the gimmicks and the finger-wagging of his early work. What we’re presented with instead is a remarkably straight-forward series of scenes from a marriage, or, more specifically, scenes from the end of a marriage, as the elderly Georges is forced to bear witness to his wife Anne’s slow, painful descent into paralysis and dementia following a stroke. In the first shot of the film, police break down the door of Georges and Anne’s apartment to find Anne’s body laid out on the bed, decked with flowers. The remainder of the film is spent recounting, in excruciating detail, the months leading up to her death.
If Haneke wrings real tears out of us here—as opposed to teasing us, lecturing us or messing with our heads as he has done in the past—he cannot be accused of compromising his notoriously pitiless worldview. Don’t let the title fool you: Amour is a love story, to be sure, but it’s one as only Haneke could tell it, unflinching and fiercely unsentimental. (It builds to a scene as harrowing as any he’s ever done.) The film ultimately suggests that love makes its presence felt most deeply in moments of extreme pain and suffering, and that to know its true power requires nothing less than the willingness to look into the face of death itself, in all its horror and ugliness.
In its masterful attempt to grapple honestly and unsparingly with the weightiest of themes—love and death—Amour recalls some of the best films of the golden age of European art cinema, such as Cries and Whispers and Last Tango in Paris. Haneke has also paid homage to the European art film (itself a seemingly terminal case) by casting the legendary French actors Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant in the roles of Anne and Georges. Back in 1973, Vincent Canby wrote of Bergman’s Cries and Whispers that “it reduces almost everything else you’re likely to see this season to the size of a small cinder.” As I staggered out of the theater at the end of Amour, shaken, I felt much the same way about it.