Consensus at Cannes is about an improbable as a Del Taco at the Louvre. But the numerous critics and wide swath of public filmgoers attending the festival seem to have found common ground on a new movie: the mortality drama “Amour." Michael Haneke’s meticulous look at an octogenarian man and the wife he is slowly losing to the after-effects of a stroke (the French-language film is referred to as "Love" in English) scored raves from critics as well as a warmly enthusiastic reaction from the public when it premiered Sunday in a rain-soaked Cannes.
Sunday night’s post-screening standing ovation, a key measure of Cannes sentiment, topped seven minutes, and audience members could be heard buzzing about the film on the way out in the manner you wouldn’t expect from a movie about a slow death.
Like its main characters’ existence, the film’s dramatic furniture is simple. Some problems with their grown daughter (Isabelle Huppert) notwithstanding, octogenarians Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Luis Trintignant) have led a comfortable, cultured life as music teachers, and seem to be enjoying a relaxed retirement. But when Anne is felled by a stroke, their idyll is destroyed. She begins declining mentally and physically, and he is pressed into a thousand difficult tasks while watching the love of his life fade away, asked to do a lot but not able to do anything where it really counts.
It’s the kind of movie that brings filmgoers starkly face-to-face with the realities of failing health and death. Older viewers will be more likely to focus on themselves; younger filmgoers will think of parents and grandparents.
Those with good memories and/or a taste for mortality cinema might watch "Amour" and recall "Away From Her," Sarah Polley's 2006 examination of a marriage ravaged by dementia, though there’s undeniably something more intimate and under-your-skin here. There are also a few shocking moments in the vein of some of Haneke’s more famous provocations, but it’s generally a low-key work; if gentle Haneke isn’t an oxymoron, then that’s how it’s best described. (More shortly from Haneke himself on his eclectic career--from "The Piano Teacher" to "Cache" to "The White Ribbon"--and the process behind this film.)
"Amour" will be released by Sony Pictures Classics later this year, when it will face some hurdles. Some moviegoers know of Haneke’s reputation as a master of the uncomfortable and may pass on those grounds; others simply may not want to see a drama focused on death and dying.
Much of the promotional campaign, though, could be built around the actors, whose back stories are almost as compelling as the film. In their eighties themselves and, as a press conference indicated, more slow-footed than they once were, Riva and Trintignant hark back to an earlier time in entertainment. Riva, whose performance here makes her an instant Oscar contender, began her career in the wartime romance "Hiroshima Mon Amour" 53 years ago. (She would turn 86 the day of next year's Oscars, the oldest age of any nominee in history by about five years.)
Though 81, Trintignant has been working even longer, notably starring in movies such as Costa-Gavras’ best picture nominee “Z” over a remarkable 56-year career.
Still, Trintignant had been in retirement and hadn’t had a bona fide film part in nearly 15 years before Haneke lured him back. “I didn't want to act in films anymore,” Trintignant told reporters Sunday morning, saying he had been concentrating on occasional theater work. “But when Haneke offered me this part it was an exception,” describing how demanding the filmmaker is. He then added to some laughter, “I think he's one of the great directors in the world, and it’s a wonderful opportunity. But I won't do it again.”
Photo: Amour. Credit: Sony Pictures Classics