‘Amour’ a beautifully simple slice of life’s inevitable end

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“Amour,” an unflinching meditation on the end of life, balances the remorseless progression of a wasting illness with the profound beauty of lifelong love. It’s a harrowing yet intermittently joyful cinematic experience worthy of all the acclaim it has received — including the Oscar nominations for best picture, best foreign film and best actress announced Thursday.

The movie foretells its end in the opening scene. Emergency workers force their way into a large Paris apartment to find a woman’s body dressed and laid out on a bed, circled with dried flower petals. They open windows to let in fresh air, presumably because the smell of decay is overpowering. The building concierge explains that the couple who lived in the apartment had nurses and other visitors coming in and out, but that no one had been there in a while.

We meet Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), a couple in their 80s, as faces in a crowd, in a shot of a piano recital audience settling in for a performance from the vantage of the stage. They’re retired after long musical careers, and the artist giving the concert is one of Anne’s star pupils, though we know none of this at the time. People in the crowd fidget in their seats, chat with each other or stare straight ahead. There’s nothing to cue the eye to single out Georges and Anne in particular — a subtle but telling indication of the universality of the fate that awaits them. Arriving home after the concert, Georges discovers that someone has tried to break into their apartment, and has damaged their door. While nothing has been stolen, the experience leaves them feeling vulnerable and irritated.

The next day, while the couple is eating breakfast, Anne becomes nonresponsive to her husband for several minutes, and he is on the verge of leaving the house and sending for help when she recovers. This leads to medical attention — anathema to Anne, who loathes doctors — and then to an operation that is all but guaranteed to be successful.

But Anne turns out to be one of the small number of patients who don’t respond to the surgery, and another stroke leaves her paralyzed on her right side. She is adamant about never going back to a hospital, so George devotes himself to her care — a duty that transforms their comfortable retirement together into a grim deathwatch.

George, with the help of a series of nurses, tries to make sure that Anne eats, bathes and is made as comfortable as possible. There are efforts to rehabilitate her wracked body with physical therapy. These are arduous and largely unsuccessful, and Anne appears to sense their pointlessness before Georges is willing to abandon them entirely. In one particularly touching moment, George tries to help Anne recover her powers of speech by getting her to sing the children’s song “On the Bridge of Avignon.” Frustrated with nurses, and visits from their self-involved adult daughter, Georges eventually takes over all aspects of Anne’s care, from bathing her to changing her diapers when she is confined to bed.

“Amour” is beautiful in its plainness. There is no background music, except that played on the stereo or the piano for Anne’s enjoyment. The sounds we hear are rather more desolate — Anne grunting her way through exercises, a knife scraping on a plate as Georges eats alone while Anne sleeps. Such unadorned moments make it easy to forget that “Amour” is a movie, and not an unremittingly real and brutal experience.

★★★★

TITLE: “Amour” (in French with English subtitles)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Michael Haneke

RATING: PG-13 for mature themes

RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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