Police burst into a beautiful Parisian apartment to discover a semi-decomposed elderly woman’s body, arranged painstakingly on her bed, surrounded by flowers. There is duck tape around her bedroom door, preventing the smell from coming into the rest of the apartment. Cut to the woman – alive – coming back home with her husband from a concert. How did this become her heartbreaking end? In Michael Haneke’s beautifully unflinching Palme d’Or winner Amour, he circles back to this opening scene as he tells the story of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and how Anne’s debilitating illness tests the parameters of their love for each other. Amour is a great feat in filmmaking, as its near-perfect direction and performances go to emotive depths very rarely achieved onscreen.
Anne and George are vibrant, retired music teachers somewhat estranged from their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who lives in England with her philandering husband. One morning, Anne prepares Georges a boiled egg for breakfast. She serves it to him, sits at the table, and then suddenly goes blank. She is completely unresponsive to her pleading husband, but as he rushes into his bedroom to start getting help, he hears the running water turn off. When he returns to the kitchen, Anne is just like her normal self and has no recollection of the episode. All seems fine until minutes later when Anne can no longer pour a cup of tea.
After a short ellipsis of time, we learn that Anne has suffered a stroke. She has an operation in the hopes of repairing some of the damage but sadly falls within the five percent failure rate. When she returns from the hospital, she is no longer able to move one side of her body. She makes Georges promise that she will never go to the hospital again, and he keeps his word.
Riva’s performance is an absolute triumph. Not only does she completely master the physicality of a stroke victim — the effects of paralysis, etc — she takes advantage of the physical limitations, conveying such a flood of emotions with just her eyes after her character’s body completely fails her. Trintignant doesn’t have to go to the physical extremes that Riva does, but his performance nevertheless equals hers in emotional depth. His character bottles up his emotions deep down inside in order to be a rock for his wife, but they do bubble to the surface.
One scene, in particular, showcases both of these actors at their best in the film. After Anne suffers a second stroke, Georges has to make her drink water in bed. Anne is unable to move one side of her face and resents having to be cared for like a baby. Georges tries to force the water on her, and she spitefully spits it back at him, causing him to slap her. They are both so shocked by this action, their feelings heartbreakingly palpable. And barely a word is uttered.
Haneke’s work is inspired in this film, which allows him to shine without the more obvious provocations evident in his earlier work, such as Funny Games and The Piano Teacher. Here, the intensity of Anne’s decline elicits such raw, visceral emotions, which produce similar provocations, but ones routed firmly in reality, harkening to everyone’s utter fear of their loved ones growing old and dying. The camera captures Anne being bathed, being tended to in the bathroom, having her diaper changed – she is a proud, independent-minded woman and this is difficult to watch at times because her humiliation is absolutely shattering.
Haneke also makes the choice to only film in the couple’s apartment. All activity that transpires in the hospital and elsewhere occurs off-camera. This allows the viewer to closely identify with the claustrophobic atmosphere in which the couple lives after Anne falls ill and also just to focus on them as a couple and their beautiful love story. The apartment is filled with relics of their rich life together – photo albums, classical CDs, an expansive library – which gives the viewer insight on the life they have built and what they stand to lose in the face of the ticking clock.
Anne’s fate is made apparent from the very beginning of the film, which gives the viewer no pretense on what will happen as they watch. Haneke’s artistry lies not in a big reveal but in his depiction of the every day battles that Anne and Georges face, the evolution of their relationship in this nightmare of a time and how their love endures. His camera never shies away from the cruelties of aging and death, while upholding the dignity that they deserve.
The Upside: Near-perfect direction and performances.
The Downside: Given the intensity of the material, this would be a difficult film to re-watch soon after its first viewing.
On the side: Emmanuelle Riva is perhaps best known for her starring role in Alain Resnais’ classic 1959 film, Hiroshima Mon Amour.