I can’t remember the last time I saw a film quite like this. Whilst Amour is an impeccable piece of intelligent filmmaking that deals with the painful and emotionally complex subject of the suffering of a loved one, the film’s form—its visual style and overall method of construction—is beautifully simplistic. Unsurprisingly, it’s also breathtakingly powerful.
The director of Amour, Michael Haneke, is a famously fastidious artist. He has been accused in the past of being too clinical and dispassionate with his material, particularly considering how inherently dramatic the premises of many of his films are—especially those exploring the extremities of negative human experience.
Amour begins in this unpleasant vein, with a flash-forward: a group of firefighters break into a smart, bourgeois apartment in Paris, where they discover a well-dressed elderly lady lying dead on a bed; cut flowers have been placed delicately around the corpse.
With such a stark opening scene showing us what the future holds, Haneke ensures the remainder of Amour has a pervasive sense of inevitability hanging over it. However, the story proper begins on an upbeat note, and features beautiful performances by the two former ‘60s European art-house stalwarts Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who play an elderly middle class married couple, Georges and Anne Laurent. Both are retired music teachers, and enjoy a life of contentment.
Then Anne suffers a sudden stroke and their lives change forever. Georges adores his wife, yet when Anne returns from hospital he feels emotionally overwhelmed by his new responsibilities; he also vows to honour a promise made: whatever happens, she’ll not be returned to the stresses of professional palliative care. This puts tremendous logistical pressure on Georges, particularly when the couple’s daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) starts to get involved and questions his methods.
Initially, Anne’s impairment is bearable: she is wheelchair-bound and paralysed on one side, but mentally she is still compos mentis. However, she soon suffers another stroke, worse this time, and so begins a slow decline that encompasses severe physical frailty, a serious speech impediment and incontinence. Georges is naturally distraught, but he is also determined to continue caring for Anne, even though he realises that he must now renegotiate his relationship with her. Something fundamental has been lost, but Georges love for his wife remains undiminished.
Haneke may have previously been guilty of obliquity, but this is not the case with Amour, which represents brutally honest and truthful filmmaking, devoid of pretension, sentimentality and emotional manipulation. Perhaps this striving for authenticity is partly as a result of the director having written the screenplay in response to his memories of dealing with a suicidal aunt.
Yet whilst aspects of Haneke’s work and style can appear emotionally ‘cold’ (it’s been said that he is a director that places a pane of glass between himself and his viewers), one needs to look beyond the film’s simple, objective style in order to appreciate how the director encourages the audience to encode the drama.
For example, Haneke has spoken before about the important role he sees his audience playing in bringing their own experiences to bear on the material onscreen. Allowing them narrative ‘space’ to contextualise the story for themselves is a key element to Haneke’s creative process here, and he facilitates this emotional connection simply by being as unobtrusive as possible. Indeed, those doubting the director’s intentions would do well to research his documented desire to constantly combat Hollywood’s penchant for, as he sees it, emotionally disempowering the spectators of film.
In keeping with Haneke’s creative ‘streamlining’, there’s nothing extraneous in Amour at all; every frame serves the story completely, and the deliberate sparsity of the narrative leaves room for contemplation, both from the protagonists and the audience. See, for example, how characters stare silently for long periods, and how Haneke’s camera cuts between long takes of the large, quiet and empty rooms of the couple’s apartment, affording us the opportunity to absorb the atmosphere and the gravity of the situation (one critic spoke of how his mind drifted towards his own family and their problems during these silences, which was exactly Haneke’s intention). Even music is kept to a minimum, save from some passages of Schubert, and a sprinkling of plaintive diegetic piano.
The couple’s bewilderment when faced with life-altering obstacles is palpable, due in large part to the extraordinary, naturalistic performances of Trintignant and Riva, whilst Haneke details Anne’s transition into ill health and disability with great subtlety and restraint. The first episode indicative of her major cognitive problem occurs just several minutes into the film, when she and Georges share breakfast in their apartment. As they sit side-by-side at the small kitchen table, Anne abruptly stops communicating; silent, she gazes straight through her husband, her eyes blank and her face expressionless.
Rather than using this moment to establish an ominous, fraught tone and to dramatically presage the struggle that lies ahead, Haneke ensures that Georges’ reaction to Anne’s catatonia is gentle and faltering—awkward, almost. There is no sudden grip of fear or panic, no grabbing for phones or frantic calling of doctors. Instead, Georges initially assumes Anne is daydreaming, despite the fact that directly addressing her garners no response; mopping her face with a damp cloth also proves futile, and while it’s clear to us that Anne has a severe problem, George just remains perplexed, staring at his wife, gently clasping her elbows in his hands and saying her name over and over, neither desperate nor perturbed.
Although Amour obviously makes for raw and often difficult viewing, the film derives its greatest power not from pessimism, or from dwelling on the human body’s physical and mental decline, but rather through an affirmation of the extremely close bond that Georges and Anne share – and which only intensifies as death approaches.
Unlike other more conventional films containing similar subject matter, Amour doesn’t attempt to comfort us, nor does it offer pseudo-philosophical platitudes to help sweeten the ineluctable fact that our lives, loves and companionships can only ever be transient (hey, this is still Haneke we’re talking about, here); nevertheless, despite a generally bleak tone, the film contains an intrinsic humanity, and it is strangely life-affirming as a result. That’s rather ironic for a narrative that utilises the insidious approach of mortality as its central theme. (Thinking about Amour brought to mind a radio interview I heard with the iconic rock guitarist Wilko Johnson, very recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and yet finding himself not only feeling supremely alive, but more than ever before thoroughly appreciative of, and emotionally connected to, the dearest people in his life.)
Coming from a director renowned for his pessimistic world-view, Amour—which Haneke acknowledges was a change of tack from him – is both a revelation de auteur and an existential, bittersweet celebration of love. It also demonstrates that Haneke is a director with great heart, and the capability for compassion too, even if his creative methods are often unorthodox.
Extras include a making of documentary (featuring a surprisingly cheerful Haneke), an engaging interview with Trintignant, an introduction to Amour by Haneke’s biographer Philippe Rouyer, and a trailer.