Cinema feeds on stories of love and death, but how often do filmmakers really offer new or challenging perspectives on either? Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’ is devastatingly original and unflinching in the way it examines the effect of love on death, and vice versa. It’s a staggering, intensely moving look at old age and life’s end, which at its heart offers two performances of incredible skill and wisdom from French veteran actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva.
The Austrian director of ‘Hidden’ and ‘The White Ribbon’ offers an intimate, brave and devastating portrait of an elderly Parisian couple, Anne (Riva) and Georges (Trintignant), facing up to a sudden turn in their lives. Haneke erects four walls to keep out the rest of the world, containing his drama almost entirely within one apartment over some weeks and months. The only place we see this couple outside their flat, right at the start, is at the theatre, framed from the stage. Haneke reverses the perspective for the rest of the film. The couple’s flat becomes a theatre for their stories: past, present and future.
He asks hard questions: what do love and companionship mean when one half of a couple is facing the end? How can we cope? What’s the right way to behave? Can anyone else understand what you’re going through? Is life always worth living? What role, if any, do kindness and compassion play? And what do those words even mean in extreme circumstances?
A winter light and a sense of half-dark, fading afternoons pervade the film. Our only glimpses of the outdoors are seen through the windows of the flat. This is a drama played out under grey clouds. There’s no storm, just gradual changes from one day, week or month to the next. There are hints of threats from the outside. The film opens with a door being broken down; the lock is damaged in an attempted burglary. And Georges dreams of being attacked outside in a flooded corridor. But these are reminders that the real threat is from within: lives are changing, and so too are the meanings of love, intimacy and kindness.
Haneke rejects the idea of death as a communal experience and presents the slow act of dying as intensely isolating. Georges and Anne’s daughter (Isabelle Huppert) and son-in-law (William Shimell) come to visit, but their own feelings and experiences are less and less connected to what’s happening in this apartment. Death creates a fortress, and it feels piercingly true.
Haneke presents the stark realities of sickness – problems of washing, mobility, going to the toilet – but his aim is not solely to present a realistic portrait of the end. More than that, he wants to explore the emotions and instincts felt by this couple – pride, despair, impending loss, empathy and its limits. There are strong feelings at play, but there’s also an intense pragmatism afoot. Georges has made a pledge to Anne: ‘Please never take me back to the hospital… Promise… Promise me.’ Among so many other things, this is a film about loyalty and being true to your word. ‘Amour’ is a staggering, highly intelligent and astonishingly performed work. It’s a masterpiece.