It won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, scooped the European Film Awards and has been nominated for five Academy Awards – including Best screenplay, film and director. It’s also one of Michael Haneke’s most intimate and painfully truthful films – an exploration of what love means at the far end of life, a place where loss, dignity and dying dominate the everyday concerns of an elderly couple.
The film opens with the discovery of a corpse – laid out beautifully on a bed and surrounded with flowers – and then moves back in time to allow us to witness the events that led to this inevitable end. There will be no surprises and no nostalgia here, and those familiar with Haneke’s work (Funny Games, The White Ribbon, Cache) will expect no less. In Amour, we meet Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva,) an elegant, professional couple in their 80s who live alone in a comfortable apartment in Paris, surrounded by the memories of their life together. One morning Anne imperceptibly – almost mysteriously – suffers a minor stroke and is diagnosed with a deteriorating condition that leaves her partly immobile. George adjusts his daily routine to care for his wife, and we watch as Anne slowly gets more and more bedridden, and less and less cognisant of reality. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) visits occasionally, alarmed and confused by her parents’ decision that Anne stay at home. And although deeply concerned, Eva’s distance from the everyday reality of her parents’ situation means she is unable to fully grasp why her father willingly endures what he must, and what we, as audience, witness. It is a profoundly moving and sometimes unbearably difficult story to watch.
Although Haneke’s precise and deliberate honesty is what sets this story apart, it is the performances of Trintignant and Riva that make it so riveting to watch. With just about the entire film shot in an apartment, this is not epic cinema but intimate two-handed drama, small moments and delicate interchanges between the two experienced actors adding up to Haneke’s unflinching examination of the kind of compassion required to deal with dying. It’s a rare approach to the subject matter – films about old age and death typically bathed in nostalgia or handled with careful avoidance – and it takes a master filmmaker like Haneke to pull it off with this much care.