Movies tend to idealize the words "I love you," treating this supposedly all-embracing declaration in the same way starry-eyed teenagers do: without any sense that there are, or should be, difficult consequences for pledging devotion to someone else. Never willing to shy away from tough truths that most people would much rather ignore, writer/director Michael Haneke starkly specifies what a complete commitment to another human being requires in his latest film, Amour, the tender, heartbreaking, and deserving winner of the 2012 Palme d'Or at Cannes. It is a painful lesson, imparted with Haneke's trademark visual austerity, which has rarely, if ever, had a more appropriate subject: the painful final chapter of an old married couple's life together.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), both former music teachers living in Paris, have settled into a comfortable retirement routine. Their days consist of shared meals, placid discussions about nothing too important, and other understated examples of fealty. Honed over the decades, their quiet marriage is entirely undisturbed by silly, youthful passions. Whatever typical concerns--careers, family, money, rival lovers--may have once challenged their relationship no longer do.
Then, after one last night of blessed monotony--spent enjoying their common passion, classical music--Anne suffers a mysterious stroke-like symptom, caused by a blockage of her carotid artery. Against overwhelmingly positive medical odds, a surgery to correct the problem fails, resulting in Anne’s partial paralysis and Georges immediately assuming the role of full-time caretaker. Georges takes on this responsibility matter-of-factly, without so much as a doubting pause. It is as if he always understood there was a price to pay for not being alone.
With an unflinching camera, Haneke chronicles Anne’s precipitous decline from the picture of octogenarian health to helpless invalid. There are times, though, when you may fervently wish for Haneke’s camera to flinch, at least a little. This is especially true after Anne actually does suffer a stroke, a major one that leaves her housebound, unable to perform the most rudimentary task on her own or communicate intelligibly. Seeing a nurse bathe Anne while she sits naked and groaning in the shower is a particularly brutal vision, which will linger in your consciousness for a long time. Although lasting memories are generally what we expect from great movies, be forewarned: "Amour" exacts a heavy mental toll.
Critics have often lambasted Haneke for discomforting audiences just because he can (see "Funny Games"), but this time there is a method to the misery he forces us to endure. The achingly realistic sorrows of Georges and Anne are a thoughtful reminder that life-long love, which most of us eagerly pursue, could culminate with one person looking into his or her partner’s hopeless eyes, and quickly understanding, beyond any doubt, that those eyes will remain that way. As Haneke compassionately argues, it is at these moments, and in the ones that follow, when love acquires its deepest meaning.
Yet, despite Haneke’s filmmaking skills, "Amour" likely would have collapsed under the weight of its own despair if not for the astonishing performances of Trintignant and Riva. Beneath their characters’ pervasive suffering, the two veteran French actors let us see other aspects of Georges’s and Anne’s humanity: their humor, their resolve, their fierce intelligence. Glimpsing these attributes, along with Georges’s flashbacks/delusions of an able-bodied Anne, gives a palpable sense of the life the couple once led. And, of course, this makes their fate even more poignant.
Still, in "Amour," Haneke mostly keeps Georges’ and Anne’s suffering front and center, with Trintignant and Riva interpreting it masterfully. Through his piteously expressive face, Trintignant conveys that Georges is not a robot or a saint; rather, he is slowly breaking down under both the ceaseless pressure of keeping Anne alive and the guilt of knowing that doing so just adds more time to her agony. As for the extraordinary Riva, she holds nothing back in rendering Anne’s physical and emotional anguish; in fact, her acting in "Amour" is so fearlessly honest that, at times, it is almost unbearable to watch.
No stranger herself to suffering for Haneke on-screen, Isabelle Huppert ("The Piano Teacher") portrays the couple’s largely absent daughter, Eva. By choice, and, to be fair, also at her father’s urging, she distances herself from her parents’ struggles, unwilling to pause her own life for theirs. When it comes to Georges and Anne’s unique bond, like us, she is essentially a spectator, just waiting to see if anyone will be around to love her at the end, too.