Everyone you love is going to die. So will everyone you hate, everyone you’re indifferent about, everyone you’ve never met, and eventually (spoiler alert) you. No matter how long and happy a life we humans are vouchsafed by the gods, what waits for us at the end of the line is this starkly irreducible truth, which most of us spend our lives scrambling to avoid confronting even for a moment. In Amour, the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke (Funny Games, The White Ribbon, Caché) quietly but insistently fixes his gaze, and ours, on that impossible-to-bear truth for two straight hours. That may sound unpleasantly voyeuristic, even macabre, but this story of a devoted octogenarian couple confronting illness, mortality, and loss turns out to be a compassionate, rigorously unsentimental masterwork from a director who doesn’t normally truck in emotions like the one named in the title.
Anne Laurent (Emmanuelle Riva) and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a pair of retired music teachers, live in a roomy, tastefully furnished Parisian apartment full of books, paintings, and records. They’re the kind of cultivated upper-middle-class couple that goes to classical music concerts and, afterward, debates the finer points of the soloist’s vibrato. They have a middle-aged daughter, the well-meaning but self-absorbed Eva (the always amazing Isabelle Huppert), and an enviably contented domestic life, one in which affectionate flirtation (“Did I tell you you looked pretty tonight?”) still plays a part. Then one morning, as they’re sitting at breakfast, Anne suddenly falls silent and stares off into space for several minutes, oblivious to the increasingly irritated voice of her husband, whose first reaction is to assume she must be either daydreaming or pulling some sort of prank. Though she quickly snaps back from this moment of distraction, it’s the first symptom of a stroke that will soon paralyze the right side of Anne’s body, putting her in a wheelchair for good. Upon her return from an unsuccessful attempt at surgery, Anne’s first request of Georges is that he never send her back to the hospital again. If she’s going to die of this illness—a proposition which, as they both soon come to realize, is not a matter of “if” but “when”—she wants it to happen in the home they’ve always shared.
This decision plunges Anne and Georges into a relationship of physical and psychological interdependency that neither of them have any precedent for in the long life they’ve lived together. “All this is still a bit new,” Georges awkwardly tells their daughter early on—“all this” being, at first, the responsibility of assisting his still sharp-minded wife from wheelchair to bathroom to bed, and then later, the need to change her diaper, spoon-feed her soft foods and sing her familiar songs from childhood as she retreats into a shadow existence of confusion and pain. If all of that sounds too unremittingly bleak to bear, I’ll be straight with you: Amour is not the movie to see if you’re looking for even a residual trace of humanist uplift. But if you’ve ever had the experience of nursing a loved one through a final illness—or even if you just live in dread of having to do so someday—you may find the film’s clear-eyed candor about the end of life cathartically cleansing. Haneke never exploits Anne’s physical and mental disintegration for its horror-movie shock value—even when she’s at her most helpless, we see her as her husband does, as an individual with privacy, dignity, and for all we know a complex if incommunicable inner life. And while he’s as loving and patient as a spouse could possibly be, Georges is no martyred saint—in one of the movie’s most difficult scenes to watch, he gets so fed up with his bedridden wife’s refusal to accept any liquids (in essence, an attempt at slow suicide), that he slaps her across the face.
Even when it’s so painful you need to look away for a moment, Amour abounds in simple moments of intimacy, tenderness, and even joy. At a late stage of his wife’s decline, as Georges sits on the edge of Anne’s bed sharing a memory she seems at first only to half-understand, she places her still-working hand on one of his and with difficulty enunciates the words “C’était bien”—it was nice. Immediately we understand: She’s referring not only to the story her husband is relating, but to the whole of their life together—a life whose richness Haneke alludes to only with the most minimal gestures. One morning at the breakfast table, she abruptly asks Georges to bring her an old photo album, then thumbs with dry-eyed bemusement through black-and-white pictures of their younger selves, observing, “C’est long, une vie.”
There’s a reason those images of the Laurents in their younger days bring up a rush of memories for the audience as well: They are, after all, old snapshots of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, both staples of European cinema for more than five decades (Riva made her debut in Alain Resnais’ seminal 1959 art film Hiroshima Mon Amour and later worked with Jean-Pierre Melville and Krzysztof Kieslowski, while Trintignant starred in such classics as A Man and a Woman, The Conformist and My Night at Maud’s.) Though both actors disappear completely into their roles—in Riva’s case, to a degree that’s almost frightening, as if she’s physically vanishing before our eyes—what we know of their on-screen histories can’t help but inform the way we experience these two extraordinary performances (which are so intertwined they essentially constitute a single performance). Our sense of actors’ mortality underscores that of the characters; if even legends like Riva and Trintignant can grow old and frail, we realize with a shock, the jig must be up for the rest of us too.
Haneke’s style, as usual, is formal, detached, and emotionally chilly. He tends to frame his shots at a distance from the painful events unfolding on-screen—his camera doesn’t editorialize, glorify, or judge; it simply shows us what is there to see. (The elegant, low-lit cinematography is by Darius Khondji.) With the exception of one scene at a crowded concert hall near the beginning, we never leave the Laurents’ apartment, so that by the end, the flat’s spacious rooms have become as familiar as the contours of the actors’ faces. In the past, I’ve often come out of Haneke’s movies resenting the way he seems to toy with his audiences, sadistically rubbing our faces in the grimmest aspects of human life: violence, torture, sexual humiliation, fear. But in the quietly devastating Amour, Haneke’s cool, dispassionate gaze feels, for the first time, something like love.