Sooner or later, our bodies betray us. Amour is a story about such a betrayal, a dignified film about the undignified cruelty of long illness and death.
Amour tells the story of a couple in their eighties, Georges and Anne, two retired music teachers who lead a tranquil and independent life. One day during breakfast, Anne suffers an aneurism. She loses her memory and is unresponsive for a few minutes; afterwards, her hands start to shake as she tries to pour some tea. Georges, the only witness to this episode, is stunned and terrified for his wife.
As Anne begins to deteriorate, their lives change completely. Georges (played by veteran actor Jean-Louis Trintignant) must now take care of his wife, which he does with infinite compassion and patience and complete lack of self-pity. We have seen, in the few scenes before Anne’s attack, that Georges and Anne are two strong people, the type that hides their age well with their independent and youthful spirit. So they endure this ordeal stoically.
But Anne, trapped inside a body that no longer matches her inquisitive, brave mind, starts to wither quickly. Played by Emmanuelle Riva, whose beauty, even at 80, is extraordinary, Anne becomes unrecognizable as the illness progresses: her elegantly styled hair becomes frail and grey, her face twisted and paralyzed. The effect is devastating. This is in great part to the stern, but masterful direction of Michael Haneke, a filmmaker known for crafting profoundly beautiful, but ultimately disturbing films about the dark corners of the human condition. Indeed, although its title may suggest this is a love story, a sense of horror permeates this film.
Visually, the film is exquisite, with mostly long, static takes inside Georges and Anne’s apartment. These create a sense of unease and anticipation as Georges and Anne’s stately apartment becomes the center of their domestic horror. These long takes also have the power to create the illusion of reality, of real time, and of capturing the forced stillness and isolation that is now part of the couple’s lives. As Anne’s elegant bedside table starts to fill with the mundane signs of illness-pills, bottles-we start to feel the full weight of her fear and the finality of her situation. Though we have a good idea how this story will end, we really never know what to expect. Ambiguity, shock and surprise are, after all, Haneke’s specialty.
Recently, my father-in-law, a musician and avid film lover in his 70’s, told me his feelings about this film: “I wanted to punch Haneke in the stomach… What is the purpose of art if not to give us hope?” I couldn’t really answer or defend the film because my feelings about it were certainly undecided then; they still are. But any film that elicits such a strong feeling has to be worthy of our time. And Amour is worthy not only of our time but of the conversations that follow after you have seen it. This is a film about love that made me have a nightmare after watching only 15 minutes of it one evening. Although visually dignified, it is emotionally unblinking.
Amour forces us to face some unavoidable truths. One is simple, but has never been as clear to me as it’s presented here: That the end is there, near, waiting for all of us, and that we will all, inevitably, disappear. The other one is that to love means also, invariably, to fear.