There is a debate among people who go to the movies over why, precisely, they do go to the movies. The vast majority would say “for entertainment.” In fact a lot of people are fairly adamant about it. For them, movies are pure escapism. The films they choose to patronize are ones that offer a respite from worldly concerns. Check out the sort of titles that top the box office charts on a weekly basis: By and large, they’re romantic comedies, epic superhero flicks, expensive sci-fi sequels. They’re mostly fluff, because that’s what people demand. It’s hard these days to get people to pay attention to films that stimulate any emotion other than simple, juvenile joy. Want to sell a dark, dramatic, soul-searching, heart-wrenching drama in today’s popcorn movie environment? Good luck with that.
Which brings us directly to Amour—the lavishly praised, Oscar-nominated film from Bavarian/French director Michael Haneke. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Amour is no fun at all. Not for a second. It’s a brutal, unflinching tearjerker about end-of-life issues. It may be one of the best films you’ll see all year. But will you see it? That’s the million-dollar question.
Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman, Z, Three Colors: Red) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima, Mon Amour; Venus Beauty Institute; Three Colors: Blue) play Georges and Anne, a long-married couple whiling away their final years in a comfortable Paris condo. One morning, in the middle of the sort of pleasant conversation they’ve probably had a thousand times before, Georges catches Anne staring off into space. It takes several scary moments to get her back to reality. It’s the first clue that things are not quite right. In fact, Anne has developed a blockage in her carotid artery—one that surgery fails to fix. She’s at the beginning of a long, slow slide toward the end of her days.
Of course death is inevitable for all of us. But it’s rarely graceful. Amour charts Anne’s painfully protracted final days. There’s precious little plot to distract us. We simply watch in agonizing detail as her physical and mental faculties slip away. Haneke—who has made a career out of crafting thrillers so brutal and audience abusing (Funny Games, Caché, The Piano Teacher) they read like horror flicks—is not a sentimental kind of guy. Amour is likely to make you cry. But it won’t do so by crassly manipulating your emotions or offering up overscripted melodrama. It’s simply going to tell you the hard, honest truth of this situation. Haneke and his well-seasoned actors don’t shy away from the sad, scary, embarrassing, uncomfortable reality of what it’s like to watch a loved one die. This is a love story in the truest sense, but one that doesn’t trick you into thinking love has anything to do with the claptrap you’ve seen in Julia Roberts movies (not even Steel Magnolias).
Amour is tough and sad and occasionally beautiful in a way that does nothing to alleviate its slow, melancholy pallor—none of which is meant as a negative criticism. The film is a masterpiece. It’s the kind of film you simply must see. But maybe not just now. It takes a certain person at a certain point in their life to want to confront this sort of thing. You won’t be sorry for having done so. But you might not be ready for it just yet. Or perhaps anymore. Still, it stands as a testament to the power films have to accomplish more than mere entertainment. They can enlighten us. They can make us feel. They can affect us deeply and profoundly. Take this for what it’s worth: Amour is so good it hurts.