Eighty-something couple George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anna (Emmanuelle Riva), former music teachers with one adult daughter (Isabelle Huppert), are comfortably settled into their senescence together in a not-small and yet claustrophobic Paris apartment. One morning at the breakfast table, Anna goes blank — her eyes blacken, she can't seem to see George or hear him — and then she snaps out of it, with no apparent knowledge of what just happened. She has a surgery with a 95 percent success rate; she emerges a member of “that 5 percent,” paralyzed on her right side, in need of full-time care.
Beginning with a flash-forward to the discovery of the old woman's corpse in a sealed-off bedroom, Amour, directed by Michael Haneke (who won Cannes' top prize in 2009 for The White Ribbon) is a deliberate, almost unbearably tense endurance exercise tracking what happens to George and Anna's relationship as Anna's condition deteriorates, one horrible day at a time. “There's no reason to go on living,” she tells her husband, early into the ordeal. “I know it can only get worse.” She is, of course, correct — and she's foreshadowing the rest of the movie.
The title is literal: George's experience — the fear he keeps in check, his practical handling of each new challenge, his inability to confide his feelings to anyone, his effort to protect his daughter from what he's going through, his quiet frustration curdled into waves of rage culminating in two key, decisive actions — is what most of us have to look forward to when enduring love eventually bumps up against mortality.
If you're following Cannes attendees on Twitter, you likely know that the idyllic spot on the French Rivera was hit by a storm today. The Amour screening I attended was in a venue erected out of “temporary” materials five years ago for Cannes' 60th anniversary; it's still in use. Throughout the film, the walls of the screening space shook and rattled in the wind and rain. It wasn't distracting, exactly; Amour's sound design is pointedly sparse, with diegetic music in a couple of scenes but no score, and an economy of dialogue. The most prevalent sounds are those made by George and Anna's bodies as they move, usually excruciatingly slowly, through the hardwood-floored apartment — until Anna's facilities devolve to the point where the only way she can communicate is by filling the air with a syncopated moan. The persistent chill imparted by the external conditions acted in harmony with the film's bitterly minimalist aesthetics. It was an unforgettable experience — and an incredibly trying one.
That's not a pejorative. Haneke is the first Competition film director at Cannes this year to both succeed totally on the terms he sets out for himself, and to truly challenge the audience to bear witness to something they've never seen on screen before: a realistically slow death, and all the unpleasantness it entails, depicted without sentimentality, to the point where when Huppert's character breaks down in tears, Haneke films her with her back to the camera. I've heard other audience members report that the movie made them cry; It didn't work on me that way. Even as the film's depicted events became increasingly sad, it seemed to me that Haneke aimed to withhold opportunities for that kind of catharsis. I emerged from the film chilled to the bone, anxious to talk to my boyfriend and get a bowl of warm soup in my system. Which is its own kind of visceral emotional response.
In their infinite wisdom, the Cannes programmers offered a de facto Isabelle Huppert double feature by scheduling a screening of Hong Sang-Soo's In Another Country, in which Huppert plays three different women in a film-within-the-film, for shortly after the Amour premiere. More on that in my next update.