Michael Haneke’s “Amour” opens with firemen smashing their way into an apartment. From their reactions and the evidence that’s shown to us, it’s clear that someone has died. The rest of the movie is essentially an extended flashback of two people nearing the slow and inevitable end of their lives. Where the movie finds its heart, in an otherwise very bleak situation, is in the expressions of love and devotion that come to the foreground in the two protagonists.
Director Michael Haneke, whose previous work includes the more aggressively bleak “The White Ribbon”, handles the story with the care and guidance of a meticulous surgeon. It’s a minimalist approach, and there’s little camera movement during most scenes. Instead, the movie is kept very quiet, very deliberately paced, and allows the actors to play out their scenes naturally. The effect is potent, and makes for an incredible viewing experience; different from most. He has an eye for subtlety, and endears each scene with a resonance that will carry over to the next. Early on, there’s a scene of a piano concert, but never once is the stage even glimpsed. Instead, the shot lingers on the audience, watching the musician and experiencing his art in the theater. It’s a very poignant image that reflects the spectacle of life, and the experience we all share in the end.
The focus of “Amour” is on Georges and Anne, played by icons of French cinema Jean-Louis Trintignant (of films like “The Conformist” and “The Great Silence”) and Emmanuelle Riva (“Hiroshima, Mon Amour” and “Léon Morin, Priest”). With these two as the main characters, we are given naturalistic and moving performances that come from a lifetime of acting. Georges and Anne are married and in the twilight of their lives. You get a clear sense of their intimacy, even given only the briefest references to their shared history together. One morning, Anne’s mind seems to disappear for a few startling moments. The stillness of the sequence adds considerable weight to the fears of Georges who, for only a few minutes, can no longer communicate with his constant companion. After the film’s dramatic opening sequence, you know it’s only the first pebble to fall before a rockslide.
The blank period leads to Anne having a stroke, and becoming bound to a wheelchair. It’s a devastating blow, and one that Georges is powerless to affect. He can only do what he has always done; love and care for his wife as her life slowly drifts away into the dark. In this, he joins the audience as a spectator viewing death’s performance on his wife. It’s tragic and heartbreaking to watch Anne continue to lose more of her mind as her body suffers from the damage. The neighbors, the nurses, and even his daughter can sympathize, but none seem to be able to understand the pain of his loss; something of which now dominates his life.
The beauty and star image of the actors, both of whom were once giants in French cinema, is stripped away, leaving only physical and emotional suffering as Anne inches closer and closer to death’s door. They give truly commanding performances, both in very different ways. Anne’s is more physical, her body degrading into a paralytic state as her minds wanders into oblivion. Georges is left to linger on and watch, and the depiction of his pain is subtle and nuanced. There are no surprises in this movie (it opens with the end), but knowing where the characters must go doesn’t make their journey any easier to watch. In me, it invoked a consistent sense of pity, one which stayed with me almost from the first scene.
“Amour” is not an easy movie to endure, and the honest depiction of human suffering will no doubt have some effect on you as a viewer. The end comes for Georges and Anne, and it takes with it their bodies and minds. To watch two loving people arrive at the end of their days, with no cheap sentiment or forced drama is an expectantly bleak experience. There’s not really a sense of hope or catharsis, only an honest presentation of what awaits us all. It’s a chronicle of a slow death process, one that severs a life of love and friendship. An emotional journey to be sure, and one that will resonate with its audience.