Film review: 'Amour' is wonderfully complicated

Having already won the Palme d'Or at Cannes and several of the most important critics' awards, Michael Haneke's “Amour” has scored an unexpected five Oscar nominations. It's unusual for the usually ghettoized European art films to score anything beyond the Foreign Language category, plus maybe one or two nominations in the general categories. The Oscars belong to Hollywood; and (not surprisingly) Hollywood tends to like the same sorts of movies that Hollywood makes.

You'd have to go back more than a decade, to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” to find a wholly non-English film to be nominated for Best Picture, and the number of such nominees before can be counted on two hands (with a few digits left over). What's more, “Amour” isn't an obvious crowd pleaser like “Life Is Beautiful.” It's a difficult film, deliberately cold, offering very little by way of uplift.

The main characters — nearly the only characters — are Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne Laurent (Emmanuelle Riva). (It should be pointed out that the central characters in the great majority of Haneke's films are named Georges and Anne Laurent. No fooling.) They are 80-ish, live in Paris, and have been married forever. She is a classical pianist and teacher; though of middle-class means, they are both of the intellectual/cultural elite, surrounded by books and CDs.

The opening scene shows police and firefighters busting open the door of the Laurents' apartment, thus letting loose a horrible smell. The bedroom doorway has been sealed off with tape, apparently to contain the odor, but the latter has become too strong for such limp protection to be effective. When they break into the bedroom, they find Anne's decaying but (nicely laid out) corpse on the bed, festooned with flower petals.

After the credits, we apparently have entered a flashback: Georges and Anne are inconspicuously in the audience of a piano recital; afterward they visit the performer, one of Anne's former students, backstage, and then ride home on a bus. Entering their place, they discover (oddly) that the front door has been broken open.

The next morning, as they chat at the breakfast table, Anne goes into a trance, reemerging with no realization that she has blacked out for a minute or two. She has, in fact, had a stroke; and it soon becomes clear that she will deteriorate and die. All this is within the first 10 minutes; the remaining hour and 50 minutes will chronicle her decline and its effect on Georges as he tries to care for her.

The Laurents are very nearly what Kurt Vonnegut, in “Cat's Cradle,” dubbed a “duprass” — a couple who function as one and therefore will live and die together. But Haneke is working in a more realistic mode than Vonnegut: the Laurents (and by extension the audience) are quite aware that, even in the closest relationship, each is ultimately alone. It's hard to imagine either of them without the other. But the slow separation — as communication becomes harder and painfully frustrating for both — makes matters exponentially worse.

Most of the commentators on “Amour” have focused on its rigorous, unsentimentalized viewpoint. And that is certainly the clearest reading on a first viewing. Haneke's style here, as always, is brutally cold and distant. To say he avoids sentimental manipulation would understate the case; in fact, he sometimes goes so far in the opposite direction as to become anti-sentimentally manipulative. (The extreme of this can be found in his loathsome 1997 “Funny Games” and its equally loathsome 2007 English-language remake.)

Given the built-in temptations the subject matter invites — the irresistible draw of four-handkerchief excess — Haneke's coldness is actually a benefit. One of the ways we deal with the incomprehensible awesomeness (and awfulness) of death is to sentimentalize: Sure, Anakin, Obi-wan and Yoda are dead, but their spectral selves are still there, looking ready to sing “Friends, friends, friends, we will always be.”

The final moments of “Amour” seem to provide something similar, but with repeated viewings, the implications become more complex. While much of the film might appear to be steely realism, dissonant moments creep in. The most obvious is a horrifying dream midway through, foreshadowing the ambiguities of the ending.

But there is another intriguing issue, from the very start. In the first shot, the police bust into the apartment. A few minutes later — during the presumed flashback — the first words Georges and Anne speak have to do with the broken lock; apparently someone has, well, busted into the apartment. The couple's response is bizarre: They don't call the police; they don't take even a cursory inventory to see what may have been stolen. Their behavior is anything but realistic.

In conventional editing, the proximity and order of the two “broken door” moments would suggest that they are responding to an event that hasn't yet occurred. But that's impossible unless they are in some kind of time loop or dream or timeless afterlife. Some of the final scenes also have this sort of ambiguity about them. Add to that a clip appearing in the American trailer (but not in the film), which, based on wardrobe and camera angle, seems to be an outtake or alternate version of one of the movie's final shots: Eva (Isabelle Huppert), their daughter, enters the apartment, calling, “Mother?” Since the corresponding shot in the film takes place after the deaths, this would have made no sense. It's not in the film, so it “doesn't count.” But the notion that Haneke, a notoriously controlled, fastidious filmmaker, could have even considered such a version, is interesting.

I just used the plural “deaths” above, but do we really even know if Georges is dead? The emotional arc and the opening scenes make us assume so, but, then, where's his body? If he had died outside the apartment, the police would have entered into the apartment sooner. But they don't find a second body in the bedroom. And if he killed himself elsewhere in the apartment, the smell of decay wouldn't have gotten so much worse when the police open up the bedroom. (I momentarily thought it was Trintignant's corpse on the bed, as though the two stars had somehow been morphed into one — Georges and Anne truly united at last.)

The reason I mention all these strange details is that, while “Amour” is, as widely reported, a bracing portrait of the ravages of old age and the pleasures and pains of a longtime marriage, I think it's far more complicated and layered than that characterization suggests.

Let me not forget to mention how perfectly tuned the lead performances are. Riva may suffer the biggest changes, but Trintignant has to portray a wider range of feelings. After 50-some years of great work, his depth here is no surprise at all.


ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).

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