A wandering pigeon functions as the symbolic touchstone in Amour, writer/director Michael Heneke’s latest film. It’s a claustrophobic story of decline, death and loss played out in the Paris apartment of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintigent) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a retired piano teacher. Heneke, the German-born director of such emotionally shattering movies as The Piano Teacher, Time of the Wolf, Caché and White Ribbon brings his penchant for grim storytelling to this unrelenting tale of physical and mental decline in old age and the impact on those who cannot see or deal with its unrelenting power.
After attending a concert given by one of her former students, Anne and Georges return to their comfortable home where she suffers a stroke while sitting at their cozy breakfast table. Her husband is initially capable of taking care of her, but a second stroke a short time later paralyzes Anne’s right side and dramatically increases her dependency on the aged, frail Georges.
Eva, their only child - a grown daughter whose work requires significant travel - hectors Georges about his decision to keep Anne at home. But in the end, Eva can’t help Georges cope, either because he isn’t interested in burdening her or because he’s not ready to surrender control over his own life. So he labors on, feeding Anne, reading to her, washing her hair and gently coaxing her into short conversations conducted in baby-talk, the only verbal communication of which she’s capable. While Anne appears initially brave, she quickly speaks of suicide and signals that perhaps death is the only real solution to their situation…</p>
As Anne’s condition worsens, Georges grudgingly employs part-time nurses and looks to occasional concierge services provided by the couple who manage Georges & Anne’s building. Life becomes an endless repetition of laborious tasks, which exhaust Georges and humiliate Anne, leading to frustration on his part and deep depression on hers. As these conditions compress their lives, the outside world becomes a distant memory, reflected in the periodic arrival of an errant pigeon that flies into the apartment’s front hallway, only to be shooed back into its life outside. As debility increases, so do anguish, despair and a final solution that hermetically seals, literally and physically, this tortured pair…
It’s startling to see both these actors so physically ravaged; Trintigent, the dashing race-car driver of A Man and A Woman is now 83 while Riva, the mysterious center of Hiroshima Mon Amour is three years his senior. We like to suspend our celluloid idols in a cinematic never-never land, so it’s shocking to see these performances pulsate with agonizing fragility. Both leads are as bird-like in their shuffling as the pigeon that pecks at their hardwood floor searching for food. Everything in these performances in terrifyingly intimate; Anne’s drooling mouth, Georges exhausted expressions as he feebly nurses and comforts his terrified spouse – its no wonder the film won the Oscar For Best Foreign Language Film earlier this year or that it has gone on to rack up another 41 nominations and wins from international festivals.
But Heneke’s penchant for exploring human reactions to frightening situation tries too hard when it demands sympathy for this suffering couple; they seek no solace or comfort from others and reject it when offered. The audience gets no intimation of Anne and Georges personal value systems nor does Heneke’s script offer any indication that either Anne or Georges have the moral strength to face the fact that life is finite. As a result, what begins as a fearless examination of the perilous challenges posed by end of life issues winds up merely an example of existential angst, the result of a seemingly self-sufficient couple unwilling or unable to seek adequate support from others or draw strength from personal convictions about the meaning of their lives. As Georges ejects the pigeon for the last time and begins to seal off the marital bedroom with masking tape, Amour becomes a nerve-shattering testimony to the devastating power of nihilism.
The Verdict? Brilliant and remorselessly disillusioning.
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