Originality is hard to come by at the movies. Film is probably the clearest example of a "mature" art form: easy access to all the highlights from film's 100-year history increases with each passing year, turning many fans into amateur historians. Today's top filmmakers mostly emerge from academic institutions where they experience full immersion in the classics. It's no surprise that movies now often intentionally echo what has come before, whether in the form of an artist's sincere homage or an executive's efforts to cash in on the proven formulas.
So it can be a bit of a shock when a movie is unlike any other we've seen. Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke's Amour is one of those films. The global response has included a Palme d'Or — the top prize at France's Cannes Film Festival — five major Oscar nominations and numerous critics naming it the best movie of 2012. But there's a reason difficult stories like this don't easily find their way to film. Amour takes a harsh and unflinching look at what it's like to grow old and irreversibly ill. The film carries on its aching back a single, unspoken question: How does one cope with rapid deterioration and impending death of a beloved lifelong companion? The answer, unfortunately, is "not very well." Amour may be a unique and beautifully crafted film, but it's not one a lot of people are going to enjoy seeing.
Amour also is not the love story implied by its title. Seventy-year-old director Haneke is known for his bleak and emotionally austere films, and this one is no exception. Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Xavier Trintignant) are cultured, retired music teachers living in a comfortable apartment in Paris. The film begins with Anne's death attached to a small mystery and goes back in time to tell the couple's story. It's an unsentimental depiction of octogenarians who still love each other and communicate well after many decades together. Both their lives decline quickly after Anne suffers a stroke, and treatment worsens her condition. Riva has received most of the attention for her remarkable portrayal of increasing dementia but the movie really belongs to Trintignant, who came out of a 14-year retirement from film for the chance to work with Haneke and play a role the filmmaker wrote expressly for him.
Haneke based the screenplay on his experiences with an ailing aunt, and it has the ring of truth. Amour focuses on the practicalities of everyday life and what happens when they spin out of control. Though the film is tightly constructed, Haneke makes his point by dwelling on mundane moments, often captured with a static camera in medium shots from a typical human perspective. It's familiar yet disorienting to see on the big screen. You may come out of this film feeling like you've been made to face something that has always lurked in the shadows — the physical horrors many of us will face one day if we're lucky enough to live that long. It's hard to watch, but who said originality was easy? — KEN KORMAN