Michael Haneke’s most intimate film in nearly a quarter-century, “Amour” relates the tragic final months in a relationship with at least six decades’ worth of history, as a concerned French husband cares for his increasingly irritable wife in the wake of two debilitating strokes. Considering Haneke’s confrontational past, this poignantly acted, uncommonly tender two-hander makes a doubly powerful statement about man’s capacity for dignity and sensitivity when confronted with the inevitable cruelty of nature. Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics before Cannes, this autumnal heart-breaker should serve arthouse-goers well — not for first dates, but for those who’ve long since lost count.
With the exception of a single early scene in which retired music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) attend the concert of a former pupil, “Amour” takes place entirely within the protective cocoon of their Parisian apartment, where the couple lives comfortably surrounded by books, music and other signs of cultural refinement. From the startling opening shot, Haneke indicates where things are headed, as police break down the door to find Anne’s corpse laid out in bed, her head wreathed in flowers, the odor of her passing thick in the air.
Did she commit suicide? Did her husband ease her out of her suffering? Though society may view either option as criminal, the film views their fight as a matter of domestic heroism as both characters face the challenges of aging together with varying degrees of patience and nobility. By the time the film reveals the circumstances of Anne’s passing, auds have already witnessed the full trajectory of her deterioration, none of it more painful than that first attack, over morning tea, when a momentary lapse of recognition interrupts the pleasantly attentive dynamic between two soul mates.
By titling his film “Amour,” Haneke rebels against the way “love” is traditionally associated with youthful passion onscreen, rejecting the context in which Riva used it describe her fleeting affair in 1959’s “Hiroshima mon amour” or the sort of lightning-strike crush Trintignant’s character experienced in 1969’s “My Night at Maud’s.” While such films depict the inferno of obsession, here, at the other end of both actors’ careers, love is a concept for adults, not pop songs, more likely to inspire weeping than to set the pulse racing.
Proceeding in that spirit, the two leads strip themselves of their stardom, delivering subtle, unshowy perfs in which every glance conveys both how deeply they care for one another and the mounting pain that Anne’s illness brings to their relationship. Even minor disagreements demand immediate apologies, as Trintignant shows admirable, unflagging devotion throughout, while Riva impresses with such quiet nobility at the outset that subsequent obstacles to her mobility and speech seem all the more unfair.
After that first stroke, Anne returns from the hospital, her right side partly paralyzed. Trintignant, who found frailty in seemingly tough characters for most of his career, does the opposite here: Georges may be weakened by age, but his commitment to Anne is so strong, he puts aside his discomfort to assist her. It’s not easy for him to lift her, and yet, their short, shuffling embrace from her wheelchair to the nearest seat looks almost like a dance. As her condition worsens, Georges is every bit as attentive assisting her with the toilet, food and bed, honoring Anne’s wish that she never go back to the hospital.
Though this decision worries their almost-60-year-old daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), Georges has reason to reject her interference. Like the former student (French pianist Alexandre Tharaud) who drops by during his next trip to Paris, Eva expresses concern only after hearing news of Anne’s stroke, but is otherwise too busy with her own music career to check in with her parents.
The scenes between Eva and the older couple feel strangely formal, more like job interviews than comfortable family time, especially when compared with the casual intimacy seen between the two leads. Alternating between static shots and simple, intuitive camera moves, Haneke may have established his aesthetic in collaboration with d.p. Christian Berger, but he gains something in working with Darius Khondji (who also shot his “Funny Games” redux). The lighting feels softer, the frame less rigid, inviting auds into a world the helmer has often kept at arm’s length.
It was exactly this sort of middle-class existence that drove the family in Haneke’s 1989 debut, “The Seventh Continent,” to systematically eliminate itself from society via a shocking murder-suicide. In essence, something very similar is happening here, as Georges and Anne retreat from a world that demands he keep her alive, and yet, the unforgiving nihilism of the earlier film has been supplanted by a sense of deep concern. The director has trained auds to expect bursts of sudden, unprovoked violence, giving his followers reason to fear for this gentle couple, or the unwelcome pigeon who intrudes through their open window. And yet Georges’ reaction to that wayward bird offers a surprising alternative, along with a possible mellowing of Haneke’s usual Austrian austerity.