Michael Haneke’s “Amour” is a film that requires no sentiment or tears shed on its behalf. That’s because for films about mortality, few are as quiet, observant, simple and without incident as “Amour.” And yet Haneke, known for his solemn, chilling art films like “Cache” and “The White Ribbon,” has made a bleak masterpiece that does away with big, philosophical ideas and focuses in on the beautiful love story at its core.
“Your concern is no use to me.” That’s Georges’s (Jean-Louis Trintignant) message to his daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) as his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) lies on her deathbed. What use does it serve, he asks his daughter, for Eva to worry when her only solutions are more unsuccessful surgeries, more time under life support in a nursing home and more pain?
Haneke’s film skillfully observes that death is a part of life, but it’s the general agony that disturbs the most, not the absence of transparency into this woman’s suffering, and not the lack of drama. “Amour” is a love story, one about the sheer burden of keeping a love or marriage together, but it’s a far stretch from the sappy tearjerkers of the world. This art film unsympathetically challenges this romance and remains a distant observer to their tireless passion.
“Amour” begins with firemen breaking down Georges and Anne’s apartment door. Their world has been sealed off: the doors are taped shut, the windows breathe in fresh light and air, and Anne is lying dead on the bed in her own little shrine. The movie concerns how Georges and Anne will both work to achieve this little image of perfection.
Some time earlier, Anne suffered a stroke at the breakfast table. The two are carrying on a conversation, Georges gets up to get some salt, and she silently, motionlessly, drifts off into space, unable to react. Haneke composes this initial moment of drama in one unbroken wide shot sans any music or cues. Riva’s transformation is seamlessly perfect, and Trintignant’s attempt to reach her is the only moment of loving embrace we need to understand how deeply connected these two are.
Minutes later, she appears fine, but they agree to see a doctor. Unseen by us, the surgery is unsuccessful, and Anne is paralyzed on one side. She begs Georges to not take her back to a hospital again, and that’s all that needs to be said.
That’s how Haneke conveys a sense of seriousness: few surprises, no grave events, and no leaving the cozy confines of their apartment. An early shot in a theater suggests the end of their lives are playing out on a miniature stage, but this is a tragedy free of a sense of time, yet full of powerful, emotional imagery and moments.
We can sense Anne’s growing pain through the introduction of a motorized wheelchair, some slow going in the bathroom and during daily exercises, but Haneke never really shows Anne worsening. For the course of its two hours, “Amour” feels very cold and bleak, but it never extracts emotions from us at Anne’s expense. Exploitative is not a word to describe a film as thoughtful and patient as this.
Similarly, Riva displays a monumentally authentic performance as a woman suffering emotionally and physically. Just watch her eyes gloss over as a faceless nurse removes her diaper and puts on a new one. It’s all the emotion in the world in barely a gesture. Her work is ultimately subdued, a far throw from the visceral wailing of the similarly bed-ridden Naomi Watts in “The Impossible.”
Trintignant and Riva are two titans of French cinema, and their coming together is magnetic. They don’t have much to say to one another, but together they effortlessly demonstrate the unspoken chemistry of a long and healthy marriage. Watch how Haneke frames them as Georges lifts Anne from her wheelchair. The full-bodied shot shows their tender embrace and their physical struggle. In the presence of a former pupil, the two of them together look complete, impervious to their guest’s questions as to Anne’s health.
“Amour” is a tough film. But death isn’t easy, and nor is marriage. So many films would go soft at this story and lose sight of their characters in flimsy ideas of spirituality and philosophy. But this is tough love, and it’s what’s necessary to keep a couple together in the face of this most ultimate of burdens.