In films dealing with love the norm typically sees two different characters collide and, after a number of episodes, realise how suited they are for each other. Michael Haneke‘s Amour (2012, 127 mins.) comes to love later, much later, in life as two (very suited) octogenarian’s face the end of their time together.
Georges Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers living in a Parisian apartment who we first see together in a crowd at a musical concert before heading home on the bus to discover that there’s been an attempted break-in:
Georges: Why does anyone break in? To steal something.
Anne: From us?
Georges: Why not?
The seeming randomness of this burglary — the notion that it can happen to anyone — foreshadows the story’s driving event. At breakfast, as they talk with each other, Anne suffers silently a stroke. When she comes round, she has no recollection of the previous minutes. The family doctor investigates, and following tests and a failed operation, new complications arise and the comfortable life the couple had together is lost as Anne experiences first paralysis and then dementia.
Apart from a few brief post-credit scenes, the film is set entirely within the Laurents’ apartment. The world outside passes at an unknown stretch. Maids and nurses come and go. A former pupil drops by unannounced, his talk of the past highlighting Anne’s fading memory. And their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), harps on at her father to put her mother into care, a well-intentioned suggestion at odds with her mother’s wishes and an indictment of the younger generation’s proclivity for sweeping things under the carpet. Georges, of his older generation, is invested in his situation to the end — till death do us part, if you will.
The suggestion of love in Amour‘s title steps away from what most other films perceive as love (which is arguably more like romance) and does its own investigation into what love means. Haneke’s take is a far remove from any romantic notions, picturing not only a woman’s physical and mental decline but her husband’s dogged determination to keep her with him to his own detriment. The question of how one retains their dignity in the wake of everyone’s good intentions is asked, if not answered. The delivery is wholly unsentimental, the camera’s gaze unflinching; neither judging or assessing anything it sees. Visual and spoken clues are left to the viewer. The approach is never didactic. Instead, we watch scenes play out and apply our own meaning.
The performances in the film are superb. Trintignant’s initial lustre fades over the duration, his face always revealing unspoken concerns and hidden depths. He also displays some physical change, brought on by the stress of the situation. But it’s Riva’s role that demands the greater range as she moves through the stages of decline, which she expertly does. Her face is extremely expressive, even when Anne is at her most distant: during the initial stroke or asked to recall something during a conversation that she cannot. In all the pain that Anne experiences, you can believe Riva feels it too.
The conclusion of Amour is one foregone as the film opens with firemen breaking into the Laurents’ apartment and finding Anne’s corpse shrinelike in bed. How it comes to be thus is the thrust of the film. It’s a painful watch, especially with foreknowledge, and Haneke ensures tight storytelling so that, in its two hour running time, nothing feels excessive. It’s a tour-de-force of film making that lingers long on the mind.