By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 20, 2012 at 7:26AM
Few directors focus on dark, existentially dreadful scenarios with the consistency of the great Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke. Less consistent in terms of style than theme, in movies like "Funny Games," "Caché" and the Palme d'Or-winning "The White Ribbon," Haneke lingers in situations that find people trapped by circumstance and mystery. His latest, "Amour," is an incredibly focused and emotionally charged look at an elderly woman's gradual demise and her husband's attempts to cope with it. Although not exactly heartwarming, "Amour" has a more contained vision of human relationships than Haneke's previous films without sacrificing its bleak foundation. It's his most conventional movie about death, and the most poignant.
The story is simple enough: Aging couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) lead quiet, stable lives, enjoying their days together after retiring from careers as music instructors. Anne's sudden downward spiral, the result of an unforgiving brain tumor, rapidly alters their shared reality. As Anne slowly becomes less coherent and Georges struggles to care for her, the couple's middle-aged daughter (Isabelle Huppert) fights to play a bigger role in the care for her mother than Georges cares to allow.
Because this is Haneke, it comes as no surprise than the formula for a family drama about death contains a particularly searing perspective on what desperation can do to family ties. "Your concern is of no use to me," Georges tells his daughter when she ignores his request to stop checking in. His instincts as a parent give way to a primal expression of rage against an insurmountable enemy locked inside his wife's mind.
The proceedings are fraught with particular sadness because Haneke spoils the ending in the opening scene with firefighters bursting into the couple's apartment to discover Anne's corpse. It's clear that she must die; how or if Georges manages to handle the situation remains the ultimate mystery, but the true core of the film is Anne's devolving mental state.
Needless to say, "Amour" derives its central power from the two lead performances. Riva in particular deserves singling out for her credible transition into mental disarray, but Trintignant's ongoing resolve registers loudly in his subtle expressions. Huppert, only appearing in a handful of scenes, mainly serves to up Georges' anxiety, and capably handles the task.
A far cry from the dreary black-and-white photography of "The White Ribbon" or the meta narrative in "Caché," Haneke's new movie displays extreme restraint: There's no soundtrack, a generally static camera, and the action exclusively takes place within the confines the apartment (with the exception of a fleeting early shot). Haneke's sterile reality develops a haunting tone that imbues the characters' crushing fear of their diminished mortality with palpable dread.
Since the movie begins with its ending, Haneke shifts the focus from anticipation to behavior. Anne's diminishing awareness of her surroundings renders her, in Georges' words, "a defenseless child," but he lacks the resolve to care for her on those terms and spends much of the running time suffering from some form of denial. That's not exactly groundbreaking turf. The plight of an elderly couple coping with the onset of senility has definite echoes of Sarah Polley's "Away from Her," and a major detail from the climax of "Amour" resembles the resolution of last year's under-seen Icelandic drama "Volcano."
However, Haneke maintains such a confident grip on the material that it never drags from familiarity. In its closing scenes, "Amour" transcends its grim, matter-of-fact foundation and enters an enticing realm of ambiguity by exploring the fantasies of one character and leaving several fates open ended. Only Haneke could end a slow-burn movie about death with some odd semblance of hope.
Criticwire grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sony Pictures Classics will release the film in the U.S. later this year. It should perform well in its opening weekend based on Haneke's existing reputation, but the story elements could make it a tough marketing challenge.