At the heart of its darkness, Amour is precisely what the title suggests – a love story. Coming from the brilliant yet brooding Michael Haneke, whose taste in amour typically runs to fou (The PianoTeacher), and whose take on domesticity is pockmarked with brutal invasions (Funny Games) and simmering class tensions (Caché), such a tender tale seems a radical departure. It’s not. Even amid the tenderness, there’s ample violence here, but it originates from a single mundane source: The cruel, relentless, inexorable ravages of time. The film is a graphic portrayal of the unfunny end game we’re all fated to play; the title is just a simple declaration of how best to play it.
Much like their Paris apartment, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) have aged elegantly – they’re in their 80s. He walks with a stiff-legged yet sprightly gait; she possesses a classic beauty that still radiates. Whatever their long marriage has seen (a lot, we suspect, since she was once a “piano teacher”), it has reached a point of mutual harmony and shared contentment. But all that hard-earned peace is gone in an instant, when violence erupts and everything changes.
The eruption is deceptively passive. Suddenly, over breakfast, Anne becomes mute and unresponsive. The stroke lasts only a matter of seconds, then she seems to return to normal. Or so they both dearly hope. But no. Haneke shoots the sequence (and most others) in a static frame with an unblinkingly observant lens, forcing us to watch the details, where God and the devil alike are known to reside. And, in this quiet scene, a culminating detail is too ominous to ignore. Several weeks and one operation later, Anne returns to the apartment in a wheelchair – the right side of her body is paralyzed.
Everything that follows, entirely within the entrapping confines of their home, is a variation on that breakfast tableau, where predictability keeps close company with surprise. Even as death approaches, life brings its unexpected twists; even in despair’s pit, there are flecks of joy. Anne can still talk, can still move through her impediments, can ponder suicide one day yet giggle girlishly the next. And Georges is infinitely caring in his ministrations. Over another meal, as their eyes meet, a smiling wife sums up her husband past and present: “You’re a monster sometimes – but very kind.”
Together, they seem to accept their diminished circumstance, clinging to the quality that remains, until a second stroke robs her further. Haneke is unflinching in his look at both the body’s descent and the attendant practicalities – the spoon-feeding, the diapering, the hiring of nurses sensitive and not. Outside the apartment’s open window, the world beckons to Georges, but he maintains his devoted vigil, if not always his patience. Once, he snaps – yes, violently – and the consequent guilt on his face is as horrible as the suffering on hers.
Occasionally, their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) flies in from abroad for a visit, although her combination of weepy theatrics and conventional wisdom only adds to the burden. Later, when she knocks, Georges is reluctant to open the door. In his mind, at least, the end game is a closed affair in a secluded apartment where love and death are the only occupants, and where anyone or anything else is an unwelcome intruder – an invasion of privacy.
Obviously, that isolationism puts the principals under close scrutiny. For more than two hours, the veteran pair are rarely off camera, and they respond superbly. Trintignant, in his literally supporting role, plays the caregiver with an always credible mix of deep affection, growing melancholy and ultimate resolve – the decisions have dwindled to a precious few, and only he can make them. More arduously, Riva is obliged to act out the physical decline while still registering a full spectrum of emotions. Remarkably, she does it all, even when reduced to communicating with her eyes alone. Hers is, in every sense of the phrase, a nakedly honest performance.
At one point, when Eva offers her basket of false hope, Georges rejects it vehemently, then explains to her the facts of life in its near-death stage: the daily regimen of incontinence and pain, the mopping up and the waiting. Insists Georges: “None of that deserves to be seen.” Clearly, Haneke thinks otherwise – he shows it. But he shows us something else too – not just that time wreaks its bodily violence, but that the time will come when even the darkest violence pales before a higher and brighter truth. Despite all, above all, Amour is indeed a love story.