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Michael Haneke’s Amour, the winner of last year’s Palm d’Or at Cannes, is a likely candidate for the most painful movie you might ever see. It’s a movie that looks at aging and death with such open-eyed, clinical precision, completely lacking in sentiment, that it has the effect of a horror movie. And it’s a love story.
Georges and Anne Laurent (Jean Louis-Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva) are retired, octogenarian music teachers living in an elegant Parisian apartment. The opening scenes quickly establish their life—they attend the concert of a prodigious former student (in the only scene taking place outside their home), chatter away upon return, make breakfast together, read the morning newspaper.
But then Anne has a momentary spell and drifts off, unreachable. Georges is initially convinced it is some kind of joke, but shortly after Anne suffers a stroke that leaves her right side paralyzed. When an operation doesn’t help matters, she returns home, wheelchair bound, with George as her caretaker. For a time, this works. Since this is a movie about love and transcendence, patient Georges prepares meals, helps Anne in and out of bed, to the restroom and at one critical moment, retrieves photo albums of their life together. Anne knows what is coming, and resents that Georges’ quality of life is suffering too. But when a second stroke reduces her to a near invalid state, nurses are called in (including one exceptionally terse dismissal) and Georges watches her rapid deterioration to a being who cannot, or will not eat, cannot get out of bed, has lost her ability to speak (indeed she can only mutter ‘it hurts’) and essentially regressed to a place where she cannot communicate.
The arrival of the pair’s chilly, adult daughter (Isabelle Huppert) and her British husband seems to complicate the household drama. Theirs is a distant relationship, though it’s unclear exactly why. She herself is a celebrated musician and apparently abroad. It’s clear this isn’t a close family, at least warmth isn’t part of the dynamic. She’s horrified at her mother’s condition, but in a particularly upsetting scene can barely bring herself to reach out to her mother while sitting at her bedside. Georges decision to keep Anne at home infuriates her, but we sense more based on a lifetime of power struggles with her father rather than compassion for her mother’s decline.
The film, which takes place entirely within the pair’s apartment save the opening recital scene, is both claustrophobic and almost unbearably tense as it marches toward its inexorable conclusion. Just as Georges remembers Anne’s grace and composure in a flashback, we too see the elegant, eight-five-year-old Riva, the international star of 1959’s Hiroshima mon Amour, fall apart before our eyes from gracious and lively woman to shell of a functioning being. It’s tough stuff. You live a long life, have a great love, are successful and happy for decades and then this nightmare is what you have to look forward to. Amour raises uncomfortable questions about our mortality and the meaning of it all, and Haneke doesn’t pull punches with a movie that shows the human body as an executioner if you will, and Amour’s death of love, and death, is difficult stuff.
Haneke, working from his original screenplay, lights and frames the film in a series of elegant master and medium shots and long takes, including a marvelous sequence where Georges chases a pigeon that has gotten into the flat. The director, never one to shy away from the darker elements of the human experience from the birth of Nazism in The White Ribbon to sadistic thrill killers in Funny Games to a sexually repressed sociopath in The Piano Teacher, isn’t out to tug our heartstrings with Amour. Instead, he looks with a cold eye at a very frightening subject. At times, I felt, a bit too up cold — the experience for the viewer is every bit as chilly as his other pictures.
If the Amour releases us from all of this sorrow, which is really doesn’t, it’s in the remarkable suggestion that true love cannot be extinguished in death.