The first thing we see in Michael Haneke’s latest film is a door being prised open. The pompiers rush into a building, appearing overwhelmed by the stench of an apartment inside. Finally, facemasks donned, the men force open the door of the finely appointed master bedroom. There, laid out on the bed, as if for a wake, is an old woman’s body, her grey hair strewn with flowers, her eyes closed. Cut to the title: Amour. And so it is. Someone has clearly loved this old woman.
Haneke’s films are known for their psychological brutality. His fascination with how we cope with cruelty and fear, both as perpetrators and victims, often takes forms that seem sinister and perverse. His 2009 film, The White Ribbon, for instance, depicts an austere Protestant village in Germany where, in the year leading up to World War I, a nearly endemic cruelty passes un-mended from one generation to another, and The Piano Teacher (2001) notoriously focuses on the sadomasochistic perversions of a deeply unhappy and increasingly unhinged woman.
Yet Amour, for all the initial shock of seeing that body on the bed, is much gentler than any of Haneke’s other films. In this case, the cruelty the film explores is not committed by any devious human hands or minds. Here, the ravages are those of old age.
They’re visited upon Georges and Anne, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, touchstones of the French New Wave now in their 80s. By all appearances, the couple is settling into their twilight years quietly. They first appear together as part of an appreciative audience at a classical piano concert, where they listen attentively. Afterward, riding the bus home, they sit close together and talk of the Schubert they have just heard. In their book-lined, lived-in Parisian flat, with its grand piano and collected art on the walls, we see their companionable routine: preparing for bed, boiling eggs for breakfast, wearing slippers and robes. He walks with a slight, dignified limp. She supports him. We have no doubt that they have spent their lives together. One watches their affectionate way with one another and sees love.
Their routine changes one morning, at the breakfast table, when Anne has a stroke. Her soft, mild face hangs blank and unresponsive as Georges tries to rouse her, as peeved at first as if she were playing a prank on him. It’s a moment that echoes others in Haneke’s films, where one person cruelly toys with another. But the prank here, the cruelty, is how Anne’s body begins to betray her.
Some time later, rendered largely immobile by a second stroke, Anne says quite somberly to her husband, “It only gets worse. Why must I inflict that on us? I don’t want to go on.” Her husband, however, has resigned himself to see her to the end. When their daughter (played with a credible bourgeois reserve by Isabel Huppert), visits and feels overwhelmed by her mother’s deterioration, she asks Georges what he plans to do. He responds with weary resolve. This is his beloved wife, and he and no one else will see her through to the end. In that sense, he becomes both her caretaker and captor, which is exactly the kind of excruciating position that a Haneke film likes to explore.
Mind you, Amour offers nothing near the penny-dreadful situation of a Misery: no one is intentionally unkind. Mostly what we see is a worn, enduring relationship in which the partners are forced to reconsider the meaning of fidelity. Through closely shot scenes that first show Anne and Georges together and then, increasingly, Georges’ point of view alone, all within the closed space of their apartment, it’s clear that, in Anne’s end, Georges sees his own. Trintignant’s emotionally contained performance shows us a man who, despite his daily redoubled loss, is always very proper, very correct.
Doubtless, Anne is in more physical pain and anguish than Georges. Her life is soon reduced to portraits of agony: her drooping, purple-splotched faced against the white pillow, her washed-out blue eyes dimmed in resignation. But as we watch, so does Georges. And as he sees the decline of his refined and lovely wife, he has no recourse save for the labor of being her caretaker. This is their life, turned into pain and bedpans. Their losses are rendered in image and sound too, as Georges hears the piano pieces she once played.
These effects occur in a film as confined in its location and as limited in its hope as Haneke’s 2007 Funny Games (his own remake of his 1997 Funny Games), in which two young men hold a family hostage in their own home, torturing them until death. (Clearly, the parallel crossed Haneke’s mind, given that, in all three films, the doomed married couple has the same names.) But I am relieved to say that Amour is an entirely different emotional experience than Funny Games. Consider the moments when Georges, lame and halting, must pull Anne from her wheelchair to an armchair. Each time, he wraps his arms around her and we watch them from behind as they stand close and move awkwardly, almost like two kids who are just learning to dance. At table, he cuts her food for her and tells her stories from his boyhood: one evening, he recalls to her how moved he was by a schmaltzy romantic movie he saw as a boy; even though he has now forgotten the story, he can recall being overcome. “The emotions remain,” he says. And this is what they look like: as she lies prostrate on the bed, he pulls and pushes her limp white limbs, rudimentary therapy.
Amour has won Haneke is second Palme d’Or, the first having been awarded to the film that directly precedes it, The White Ribbon. Now over 70 years old, he is telling his stories more subtly, and they’ve gained in complexity what they’ve lost in shock value. Amour has its longueurs, but it’s deeper for them.