Hollywood generally treats aging as an ennobling process, a time of gauzy reflection or an opportunity to transmit sage wisdom to towheaded grandkids. Beyond Cocoon or On Golden Pond, what the movies really like to do is use geezers for flashbacks: One minute you're Wilford Brimley, lulled into a summer dream on the front-porch rocker, then you're Ryan Gosling, storming the beaches at Normandy.
Opens Fri., Jan. 25 at Egyptian. Rated PG-13. 127 minutes.
This is not a view shared by Austrian director Michael Haneke. From Funny Games to The Piano Teacher to Caché, he has specialized in an impeccably crafted cinema of cruelty, repressed passion, and dread. Secrets will out, violent urges find expression, and sexual impulses can never be denied. There is nothing reassuring about his movies; they are specifically made to unsettle. Comfort and complacency are Haneke's sworn enemies, so it's something of a shock for his Amour to begin as a loving portrait of a marriage between retired music teachers Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), who remain independent in their 80s, living in a comfy, memento-filled Parisian apartment, their musician daughter (Isabelle Huppert) now based in London. We meet Georges and Anne at a recital given by one of their own pupils (pianist Alexandre Tharaud), then they return to their apartment. It gives away little about Amour's plot to say that they will never leave. The movie's very first scene connotes a catastrophe to come.
Although Amour topped many critics' 10-best lists last year, it was—for family reasons—the #1 entry on my "I do not want to see this" list for 2012. And yet it's not so awful and dispiriting as I'd imagined. Its progression is nothing if not logical and familiar: the medical crisis, doctors, the daughter's visit, nurses, rehab, moments of resiliency and love, the "Never take me back to the hospital" demand, setbacks, adult diapers, despair. That's the way the end-of-life process works. I've been there, I know. And Haneke knows too. He renders Georges and Anne's dilemma with dispassionate, clinical observation. The camera seldom moves. There are few close-ups. Amour often plays like a Frederick Wiseman documentary.
But is this a near-documentary you want to see? Well, how old and healthy are you? I found Amour to be less emotional and excruciating than expected, yet I learned precisely nothing from it. For me, owing to direct personal experience, the movie has nothing new to say. As depicted—and Haneke is being quite realistic here—aging is more brutal than all the violence in Django Unchained. If you're younger, if your parents are healthy, you may be startled by Georges and Anne's decisions about life and death. But they're realists. "It will go steadily downhill, and then it's over," their daughter is told. And she must absorb that fact: Life itself is cruel. There is no consolation, only an end.