Michael Haneke has always been a little too bloodless as a filmmaker, for my taste.
There is a distance -- and a coldness -- to his work, an almost clinical feel, like a scientist tracking the path of rats through a maze. He creates uncomfortable situations and lets them explode and resolve, without any sense that he feels personally involved in the material.
But with his already award-winning Amour (opening in limited release Wednesday), he seems to have found a subject and a pair of actors who are wholly resistant to Haneke's aesthetic, without obviously fighting him. Or perhaps it's that the end of life -- with all of the memories, anguish and sorrow that entails -- is a subject from which even the clinical Haneke can't distance himself.
The film is actually quite simple. After a bracketing prologue which foreshadows the conclusion, we get the main story: George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are an elderly married couple. They are both retired music teachers, elderly but active, both seemingly in their early '80s.
One morning, something happens: Anne stops talking mid-sentence at the breakfast table, staring stonily into space as though suddenly turned into a statue. George at first thinks she's joking, then becomes concerned -- until, after several minutes, she suddenly snaps out of it as though nothing had happened. She has no clue what she's just done.
It's all downhill from there -- and yet, downhill implies increasing momentum and speed. Instead, it's a slow-motion disintegration, as George watches his beloved wife lose more and more of her most basic motor skills. She simply is in decline, a machine whose parts are wearing out and shutting down. It happens, in some way, to all of us.
Haneke tries to keep his distance, dropping in on the couple to see how the stoic George is dealing with the disappearance of his wife right before his eyes. She's there -- and yet, increasingly, she's not there. All he can do is watch her vanish, little by little.
But despite his inability (or Haneke's refusal) to externalize the sorrow, it shows nonetheless in Trintignant's eyes. Every time she declines a little more, he pulls himself together to handle the latest change -- and yet you see him crumble a little inside, as he comes to accept the inevitable. Indeed, Trintignant does capture the man's fury at the blend of the inevitable and the inexorable, while evincing the man's sadness at a loss that seems to have already happened before it becomes an actual fact.
Like Trintignant, Riva was an icon of the French New Wave and beyond. She has the more challenging role and handles it with touching delicacy. Before long, she is acting only with her eyes -- yet you get the sense of a person drowning or otherwise desperately struggling for her life, even after she is unable to communicate her desperation.
Clinical and self-contained, Amour still achieves an emotional level that probably would dismay the dispassionate Haneke. It's a hard film to recommend, because it will hit too close to home for a lot of people -- and provide an unwanted window into the future for others.
But it features some of the year's most meticulous and subtle acting, in a movie that grabs you, even when it's not trying to.
Find more reviews, interviews and commentary on my website.