Most people I know who haven't yet seen Amour approach it as if it's cinematic spinach: they don't really want to see it, but they know they should, because supposedly it's good for you. What fascinates me is the inevitable turnaround. Without exception, everyone I know who dreaded seeing Amour has become a rabid cheerleader for seeing the movie, after the fact.
If you have seen Amour, you know the reasons why. Arguably a masterpiece, inarguably emotionally devastating, it's a willfully perverse piece of work, almost an anti-entertainment that's nonetheless totally riveting, even in the moments when it tempts you to run screaming from the screen.
Much fun has been made of our current crop of Oscar contenders in terms of their, how shall we say... certain lack of joie de vivre? You've got your bloody slave's revenge movie, your waterboarding terrorists movie, the one with the hostages, the one with the kid held hostage by a tiger, the civil war movie, the poverty-stricken motherlesss child movie, the bipolar loves clinically depressed love story, and of course the cheery Let's See Who Gets Out of This Alive musical that's actually called The Miserables (or The Wretched, depending on your translator).
Amour, in its quiet way, trumps them all, by telling the simple, tragic story of an elderly man forced to watch his beloved wife slowly disintegrate and die. Nobody's idea of a good time, yet the members of the Academy have seen fit to nominate Amour for best picture, actress, director, and original screenplay (as well as best foreign film).
I get it, and I'll even wager that in the historical long view, Amour's the one in the bunch that will loom larger than the rest. And while I doubt the movie will win any of the major awards it's up for (while its fifth nom, for Best Foreign Movie, looks like a lock), I think any screenwriter interested in the craft ought to give it some carefully considered study.
There's a syndrome I've encountered in both pre-pro and professional screenwriting circles that affects many a talented writer, which I'll call I'm Too Smart For That (ITS for short). You read a draft, and you find it so devoid of strongly emotional beats and big dramatic moments - at least, as articulated on the page - that it makes your typical Eric Rohmer film seem like The Avengers. Question the writer, and you learn that they have an abhorrence of the melodramatic, the cheap trick, and all the other ploys of the prototypical Big Commercial Movie. The writer has better taste, better instincts, worthier goals: He's too smart for that.
The ITS writer has fallen into a common confusion, in mistaking a plot (with strong story development that creates excitement in the reader) and compelling characters (with emotional inner lives the reader can access and relate to) for a script that will be accused of being over the top or on the nose. What often takes the place of such plot and characterization in an ITS script is anecdote, quirkiness, lyricism, mood, color, philosophy... in other words, everything that can make for a cinematic meal but the main course. Such a movie, should it ever get made, will rarely be watched.
The wonderful thing about being artful (or indie), in this regard, is that you can get away with it, and Amour is a fantastic testament to this fact, for one simple reason: it has real stakes. And they're spectacular.
A writer friend of mine once said that a story is only as good as its stakes; another way to say it is that a story is only as involving as its conflict is important. The stakes in Amour are as high as they come: this is literally a matter of life and death. What's worse (for the characters, that is, while it's great for the screenwriter) is that the antagonist has the upper hand, and cannot be defeated. Memento mori.
Time is the terrible villain of Amour, and in a very real sense, almost every scene in Michael Haneke's elegantly wrought script pits its protagonists, and by extension, its audience, against time. For this reason, there are a few shots in the film that go on for so long, for no immediately obvious reason, that they test the viewer's endurance. But endurance, too, is the subject matter at hand. What's really being studied is in fact the stubborn endurance of compassion in the face of inexorable indifference, or what we generally call "death."
Not to belabor my simple point: we forgive Amour its excesses - its longeurs, pauses, ellipses, its ceaseless preoccupation with the kind of quotidian details that most movies avoid like plague - because its life-or-death stakes underscore every shot. It's because the characters masterfully played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant have earned our empathy that we bear with their struggle, as painful as it inevitably becomes. And it's because the tension in the story is so basic, so primal, that we willingly hang in there, to see what kind of resolution could possibly give this couple, and ourselves, a cathartic release.
Amour is an object screenwriting lesson in how high stakes can allow a writer to give full rein to his or her imaginative capacities. For nearly its entirety, the movie never leaves one apartment, fer chrissake, and yet it's being celebrated as one of the great movies of our time. So having lives at stake is apparently something to bear in mind when you're constructing your story. I'm Too Smart For That writers, take note.