Mercy and Murder

Michael Haneke's Best Picture nominated 'Amour' is a frightening look at love

Now in their 80s and retired, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) have been married who knows how long, but there's no guesswork about the kind of marriage it is. "Did I mention you looked very pretty tonight?" Georges asks her.

The next morning, over breakfast and amid small talk, Anne fades. She isn't quite catatonic but she certainly isn't in the moment with her husband. She's conscious, sitting upright, but is totally unresponsive. He dabs her face with cold water—nothing. As Georges rushes to get dressed and drive Anne to the hospital, she returns, oblivious to what had just unfolded.

She had suffered a stroke, and as Georges explains to the couple's daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), the operation to clear an obstruction of the carotid artery has failed. From now on, life will be different. Anne is paralyzed on the right side, and her deterioration will be slow and sure. Georges wears a brave face, but Anne's slide into incapacitation is ripping him apart just as slowly and just as surely.

Some context for this film on the road to the Academy Awards: Amour is the ninth foreign language nominee for Best Picture, and it's also nominated in the foreign language category, as well as for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress. Trintignant starred in Costa-Gavras' Z, which became the second foreign film to leap into the Best Picture race, in 1969. At 85, Emmanuelle Riva is the oldest Best Actress nominee ever, and her career dates back to the 1959 classic Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

Director Michael Haneke, while long an art house favorite, was probably never in anyone's discussion of potential Best Director nominees. His films are too uncompromising. In fact, they may be the measuring stick for how much all-consuming sadness audiences can bear. But there's no denying his unique talent; his previous film, The White Ribbon, won the Palm D'Or at Cannes and the foreign language Oscar, and Amour will almost undoubtedly repeat that feat.

There are many ways to make an audience uncomfortable. Gore and violence work for some directors, heightened suspense for others. For Haneke, those would be shortcuts. Whether it's the dread of being held hostage by teenage psychopaths (Funny Games) or unflinching displays of sexual humiliation and paraphilia (The Piano Teacher), Haneke forces his audience to connect with the psychology of the characters and not to react to one stimulus or impulse the way a horror director might.

In that respect, Amour might be Haneke's most difficult work. It asks questions that don't have good answers: How long do you keep your soulmate alive once the soul is all they have left? Is it selfish to just want it all to end? Where is the line between mercy and murder?

To build Georges' solitary confinement with these thoughts, we never leave their apartment after the stroke. Georges is constantly surrounded by memories of a shared life, which make his frame of mind even weaker and more desperate. He receives few visitors, primarily just his daughter and a nurse. And Haneke, as is his wont, shoots terribly long scenes with one or maybe two edits. It's a more objective viewpoint than a parade of close-ups, and it subconsciously reminds you of the bubble Georges is trapped in.

Amour is hard to watch but it is never contrived or graphic. In fact, the banality of most of the scenes makes the film all the more suffocating. Making this more expressive or introducing minor conflicts along the way would undercut Haneke's point, which is so beautifully and almost ruthlessly made.

For two hours, you're forced to confront how you would handle such a terrible situation, and not one that involves escaping a faceless beast with a chainsaw. Because that's not really scary. Letting the love of your life suffer day in and day out, only human in form—that's scary.