02/25/2013 11:34 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2013

Why Amour Deserved to Win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film

Amour. Drama. Starring Emmanuelle Riva, Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Isabelle Huppert. Written and directed by Michael Haneke. Photography by Darius Khondji. In French with English subtitles. 2012, 127 minutes.

Michael Haneke's new film, winner of the Palme d'Or and winner of the Oscar for best foreign language film, is about the fabricated geography of death, coming to terms with the ultimate reality in a way that feels surprisingly fresh for cinema at this late date. Haneke manages to shock us out of complacency into looking at our inevitable fate in a way that invites not so much sadness but awareness of the flawed mechanics of preparation. Death, in this film of very enclosed spaces, is so overwhelming that there is almost a presence of effusive light, in the most unexpected interstices. We ought to be on the lookout, the film seems to say, for such moments of spaciousness; the art of this film consists precisely in refusing to milk consciousness of tragedy for tragedy's sake.

In the ever-unfolding pageantry of death -- death viewed by those who can never know its reality, which is to say, all of us undead -- relentless spectatorship has muddied the lenses to the point where all is blurry. Our voluble speech about mourning and grief hinders direct confrontation. In American culture, grief flourishes amidst a panoply of helpers: doctors, nurses, family, friends, lovers, the whole industry of death which pretends it is in the business of managing transitions, helping mourners reach a better equilibrium. Such a protocol denies ending, continuity becomes the all-consuming impulse, and the overflowing spaces in which the drama of individualized death is supposed to flourish become something of a birthright: we deserve to die in big, bold, bright colors. Amour militates against every one of these credos.

The film documents the incremental physical degeneration of Anne (played by Emmanuelle Riva, at 85 the oldest actress nominated for an Oscar, and best known for her role more than half a century ago in Alain Resnais's Hiroshima Mon Amour), as her loving spouse Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, 82, familiar from Z and Il Conformista) takes care of her needs without putting her in a hospital. The film takes place almost entirely within the different rooms of the couple's Parisian apartment, as culturally refined a living space as one can imagine, quite befitting two music teachers.

They live in constant attentiveness, able to communicate with wit and humor, willing to spare the verbal grace necessary to keep love unanxious. The moment when the rupture starts and speech loses efficacy is when Anne, while eating breakfast, suddenly becomes frozen for a few minutes (the onset of an "obstruction in the carotid artery"). The surgery resulting from the stroke leaves Anne worse off, as she ends up in a wheelchair and from then on loses more and more of her faculties.

The film is really about modes of perception of love as the audience hangs in the balance. It's an extended play on expectations viewers might bring to a film about sickness and aging, without ever degenerating into selfish irony. The second scene is of an audience settling in for a concert (a performance by one of Anne's successful pupils, the real-life French pianist Alexandre Tharaud), exactly mirroring the audience at the beginning of the film getting comfortable in their seats, the collective looks of expectation touching and vulnerable.

So we know from the start that we are watching a film that never fails to take measure of our reactions. We are invited to take the characters, as firmly drawn as they are in their milieu, as transparently infirm. The audience for the concert is solidly bourgeois, and in a few quick shots -- a party following the concert, a bus ride back home amongst urbane citizens -- Haneke captures the elegance of a world whose premise for happiness is that temporality doesn't exist, or at least that it can be ignored most of the time. This is all we'll see of the outside world, as the film then confines itself to the apartment for the duration of Anne's illness. The audience has simultaneously been alienated and welcomed from the beginning.

The film constantly seems to evoke an antithesis to Vermeer's illuminated positive interiors. Here all is subdued gray, yet the existence of light outside--the outside that has no role in this film, except in the form of occasional visits from the building's manager, a good nurse, a bad nurse, Alexandre the pianist, and daughter Eva and her husband Geoff -- is an overwhelming (silent) counterpoint.

Another visitor from the outside world is a pigeon that manages to get into the apartment twice, the second time after Anne's death when Georges traps it under a blanket and ends up caressing it, substituting for the person he has lost. Of course at one level the pigeon represents freedom from consciousness of death, but Haneke manages not to make it a heavy-handed symbol. The pigeon is a visitation from the world of spirits we've killed off in our bureaucracy of managed death, but it remains also just a pigeon. It cancels itself out as a symbol, and the same may be said of much of the film as a whole.

The quality of attention Georges and Anne pay to each other--it is this inability to at last engage in the life-giving repartee that prompts the denouement--negates the virility of proliferating symbols surrounding the engrossed couple. Chair, fireplace, door, window, corridor, and wheelchair are simultaneously hefty but also vaporous. In shot after shot of the chairs in the elegant book-lined study -- where for instance Eva first inquires distractedly about her mother's hospital stay, or Alexandre visits and is rebuffed for asking about his former teacher's health -- Haneke somehow manages to imbue the concreteness of objects, particularly chairs, with an evanescence that becomes all the more remarkable for the repetition. Indeed, getting in and out of chairs (the sitting posture) and then the bed (the reclining posture) are major leitmotifs of this film. It is easy for some (Eva), more difficult for others (Georges), nearly impossible for others (Anne). The strength of our lives is measured in such moderate measures of ability -- not whether we can run a marathon or develop muscles at will, but whether we can get in and out of a chair or a bed or a toilet without help.

The dying person becomes each moment more and more unable to receive or appreciate help. The process is original and fundamental to our natures, imperceptibly beginning from the moment of our birth. In the American (mis)conception of death, prevalent in both popular and elite culture, help is always on the way, until and even beyond the end. Scattering the ashes, should one choose to be cremated, is a frequently encountered totemic gesture, with all the magical residue that adheres to such potent simplification. But the prevalent feeling one gets from Amour -- and this is reflected in Georges' clear inability to continue on, despite his own relatively good health, in the absence of Anne -- is that the death of one person is the partial death of all who loved that person as well, and to the extent that we aspire to be lovers of humanity, humanity is always already dead. The event is so final that it cannot be said not to have already occurred.

Haneke manages to infuse this feeling in the smallest of interactions -- iterations of mundane love -- between Anne and George. She calls him a "monster," but a very "kind" one. He caters to her every whim, her every little stubbornness in the wake of her paralysis, with a grand mixture of solicitude and barrenness. Georges, as the one in closest touch with Anne after a lifetime of intimacy, is the bearer of news, the teller of stories, as they suit particular listeners: the nurses, his daughter and son-in-law, and of course Anne herself. When Anne can no longer be distracted by his stories of the past -- the kind which have meaning only within the context of a lifelong relationship -- then it is time to end things. The "difficult" work of walking from room to room can at last cease, when there is no auditor for stories; the audience we saw at the beginning, as a reflection of our own management of social unease (being part of a crowd, about to be "entertained"), has ceased to exist, and there is no more need for resolution.

Since this film takes place in France, one presumes the existence of a whole array of state assistance at every stage of Anne's illness, to help mitigate at least the financial burden on Georges. Perhaps the couple have sufficient financial resources of their own. On the other hand, perhaps even the home care is subsidized by the state. There must, in any event, be a range of help available to the stricken couple. Haneke shows none of this intervention. He never shows Anne interacting with a physician. The intense bureaucracy of "health care" is absolutely distanced from this film, and it is because the managerial lie is so profound--as Georges indirectly keeps reminding Eva -- that it cannot be allowed to spoil the love between gentle accuser and accuser.

The moments of illumination in Amour occur precisely when, in Georges and Anne's light/serious banter, the split between truth and falsehood about mortality becomes manifest. There is an otherworldly aspect to our familiar physical gestures which we do not usually recognize. A repeated motif in the film is Georges and Anne standing in an embracing posture, as Georges helps Anne get in and out of chairs. It looks like a dance move, as is also true of Georges lowering Anne into the bed. Darius Khondji's camera patiently lingers over these gestures, static for long periods of time, shattering the near-illusion of the similarity to dance or even sexual intimacy. Such patience will not abide illusions, it destroys the marketing of sustaining artifice within domesticity. How long will Georges's patience as dedicated caregiver, immune to Anne's increasing rancor, hold up? That, of course, is precisely the wrong question to ask, but one which the director makes us ask again and again, only to make us realize we're not allowed to ask this question.

One thinks of vaguely comparable films with the theme of incremental decline but comes up short in recalling quite the same aggregate effect this film produces. De Sica's Umberto D. (1952), arguably the high point of Italian neorealism, positively vibrates with energy and spaciousness and fluidity, compared to Amour -- though the recollection of sadness is as strong as ever. One remembers Kurosawa's Ikiru (also 1952) as a lyric of the awakening crisis of mortality, deeply rooted in the dynamics of external influence, not the anti-claustrophobic claustrophobia Amour partakes of. The principle of perfected entropy -- imbued with a grace only its locked-in protagonists can contribute toward fulfillment -- has marked stages, depending on one's perspective, and it is this question Haneke generously manages to always leave alone, rather than worry into terminal conclusions. This requires patience of a very high order, and it is to Riva and Trintignant's great credit that they get this and don't bring out any acting "skills" that might dilute this vision.

This is a film of slant lights and gray finickiness that always recalls, in every slight gesture, both the inconclusive happy world outside and that of the youthful past, even as it threatens every moment to erupt into absolute darkness and hostility. That it never stoops to this level is really this film's finesse, and it all has to do with Haneke's handling of the solid-but-melting confined spaces within which the end that can never be the beginning occurs, taking us for granted as riveted spectators. How not to make poetry out of death, even a poetry of anti-poetry: this is the daunting challenge Haneke sets for himself in making Amour.

Anis Shivani is a fiction writer, poet, and critic. He is the author of My Tranquil War and Other Poems (2012), The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (2012), Against the Workshop (2011), and Anatolia and Other Stories (2009). His novel Karachi Raj will be published in 2013.