You could hear a pin drop during the opening credits of Michael Haneke’s Amour. Deafening silence echoes around the cinema as white titles on pitch black fade by one by one. Those familiar with Haneke’s work are afraid to breathe, as much out of reverence for the Austrian master as out of fear for one of his trademark shocking, violent turns. With a huge bang, the only one in the film, Amour bursts out of the credits. There are few more surprises in the film, but emotions that leave momentary surprise paling in comparison run rampant throughout it. It is deeply affecting, but mercilessly painful viewing.
Amour tells the story of a French couple in their 80s, Georges and Anne, who have managed to stay deeply in love over the years. Both retired music teachers, we see them delightedly attend a piano recital performed by a former protégée of Anne’s – it is the last time we will ever see either of them outside their plush apartment home. Shortly after the concert, Anne suffers a stroke, and is paralysed down the right-hand side of her body. Devoted Georges does everything he can to keep both their spirits up, as well as maintain some quality of life, but as Anne deteriorates, so does Georges’s outlook. The couple’s largely absent daughter can’t process any of it, and selfishly feels like she is the victim. Anne’s protégée, now hitting classical music stardom, reels at the sight of his mentor confined to a wheelchair.
Haneke, the director of more than his fair share of masterpieces (Funny Games, Caché, The White Ribbon and more), has taken some brilliant directorial decisions here. Setting almost the entire film within the couple’s apartment, he demonstrates the isolation of Georges’s mourning and also Anne’s sensation of being trapped, first in her chair, then in her bed, then in her own body. Casting is also remarkably telling; Haneke has cast as his leads two stars of some of French cinema’s greatest love stories. Anne is played by Emmanuelle Riva, who in 1959 played Elle in Alain Resnais’s remarkable romantic movie Hiroshima, Mon Amour. As Georges, Jean-Louis Trintignant could still be playing that same lovesick character from Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman (1966). Together, these romantic players form a remarkable onscreen bond, and it’s impossible to imagine they have not loved one another all their lives.
There is no way to accurately describe how remarkable Riva and Trintignant’s performances are. Riva’s physical performance, and the fading energy in her facial expressions, are all too true to life. Trintignant captures the exhaustion of hopeless optimism with remarkable subtlety, yet when he snaps we know just why and can excuse it.
With no music on the soundtrack except that which the couple listen to or perform, Haneke frames this tragedy with almost documentary realism. The smooth camerawork of Iranian cinematographer Darius Khondji (Delicatessen, Se7en, Midnight in Paris) sails through the corridors of the apartment, keeping all the elements in frame and in focus throughout. Colours from a variety of sources contrast brilliantly with the shiny brown of the wood-panelled walls. Close-ups of the two leads reveal every last wrinkle, each an individual tragedy that combine to make this tale of the end of life and love what it is.
There are small moments of relief from the sadness, some humorous, some disturbing. After her stroke, the only non-morbid interaction Georges has is with a wayward pigeon that invades their apartment. Georges’s hobbling after the bird is the most alive we see him, but his struggle to defenestrate it reveals he too is not long for this world.
In the film’s most moving scene, Georges calms Anne, in the throes of a screaming fit, by telling her a simple story from his childhood he had somehow never told her in all their years together. The scene is the heart of this movie; no matter how long love lasts, no matter how strong, it is never complete. There will always be loose ends and regrets, but as Georges finds you cannot stop loving until the bitter end, even when hope is gone.
Haneke has made an exceptional film that anyone who has ever loved can relate to. It is a bonus that it is so majestically acted, and that it looks so well – or what little of it you can see behind your tear-blotted eyes does, at least.