AMOUR, the multinational but basically French film, won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film of 2012. It was nominated for four other Oscars, including Best Film and for Best Actress (Emmanuelle Riva). As most viewers have noted, she probably should have won, certainly over a 22 year old neophyte whose career is just beginning (Jennifer Lawrence in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK).
AMOUR was directed by Michael Haneke, who also gave us two rigidly disciplined studies in paranoia and fear in THE WHITE RIBBON, 2009, and CACHE, 2005. He has been praised and vilified for his obsessively cool distance from his subject matter, and AMOUR falls into this stylistic point of view. First, AMOUR is a difficult film to watch. It deals bluntly with end of life decisions that few people want to face. Some critics have even said it endorses euthanasia.
Two aging but seemingly healthy music teachers are seen at a concert by one of her star pupils. They seem very much in love, laughing on the way home, touching each other. The next morning at breakfast, Anne stops speaking and looks off into space for several minutes; her husband Georges tries to see if it is a prank, but she has no memory of the incident. Before long we realize she has had a stroke. Surgery has left her paralyzed on her right side and confined to a wheel chair. As her condition worsens, she makes Georges promise he will never take her back to the hospital. And so begins his loving but exhausting time as her caretaker. Played skillfully by famed French actor Jean-Louis Tintrignant, who starred in one of the great films of the 20th century THE CONFORMIST, 1970), Georges is a loving husband but also a stubborn intellectual who seems to doubt that anyone can help him as care giver, including his middle-aged daughter. He becomes obsessive about her care without realizing what it is doing to him mentally and emotionally. Watching Anne and Georges interact as she suffers a second stroke is painful and reminds us that the dying process is not as quick and easy as tv and movies often depict it.
I couldn't help thinking of one of my favorite Bette Davis movies, DARK VICTORY (1939), in which she plays Judith Traherne, a headstrong socialite who discovers she is dying from brain disease. Through the process of accepting her fate, she has become a better person and has married her doctor.
In the last scenes of the movie, she and her companion have already sent her husband off to a medical conference, and they are planting in their garden. Judith feels a chill and comments how dark it's getting. The warning that she would quickly go blind is fulfilled. She says goodbye to her friend, the servants, the dogs and then goes into her room where she lies down. All of this to the beautiful music of Max Steiner and celestial voices while the image from her point of view blurs into nothing. Well, that's the way they handled death in 1939, and in American movies it hasn't changed that much.
AMOUR doesn't have a musical score, except for piano performances, mostly on cds. Some scenes are painfully long, as if to remind us how much longer it takes to do the simplest tasks when aging. Georges' love for his wife and his resistance to help lead to disturbing decisions, which the director shows in stark, harrowing detail. AMOUR is a film that asks vital questions of us all and one that should be seen, no matter how afraid we are of those questions and answers.