Why must people fall in love? What’s the profit it in? Why do we enter into lifelong social contracts when we know, at the end of them, we’ll have to watch the other person leave us? Or worse, burden our loved one by leaving them. Are the years of happiness worth the ignoble end? Is anything? To love and lost may best never having loved at all, but it’s hardly a blowout. These are the deep thoughts that Michael Haneke’s moving Amour (2012) stirred within me, these thoughts and many others, plenty of emotions and a quiet appreciation for the impractical resilience of humanity.
The film stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as Georges and Anne, a married couple in their eighties. Anne is a retired music teacher and the pair attend a posh concert for a former student. The next morning, Georges ably walks around the kitchen discussing his plans to buy the student’s CD that day. He asks Anne a question, she does not respond, she sits motionless at the table. He wets her forehead and neck with a towel. She doesn’t move. In his panic he leaves the faucet on and leaves the room to make a phone call; he hears that the faucet has been turned off. When he returns to the kitchen, Anne seems bright and aware. She is disquieted when Georges tells her about the episode but dismisses it and resists his suggestion to see a doctor. She has had a stroke.
The treatment to reduce the stroke’s effects doesn’t work and Anne will be confined to a wheelchair and be in Georges’ care for the rest of her life. After the initial shock, they find that they are still able to enjoy life and themselves. Very little has changed, in fact. Georges still makes breakfast; Anne still sits at the table and listens to his stories. They enjoy classical music together. Anne even gets a kick out of her mechanical wheelchair, which she uses to make doughnuts in their living room. They talk and joke with each other, as when Georges has to go to a funeral for a person he didn’t think too highly of: “What would you say if no one came to your funeral?” Anne chides him. “Nothing, presumably,” Georges says.
Still, a specter hangs over Anne, who feels the burden she’s become to Georges, and she attempts to do things for herself even when her body won’t allow her. Georges reminds her that he’s there to help her, but she doesn’t understand. Her degenerative condition is robbing her of her dignity at a faster rate than its robbing her of her understanding, so she’s uniquely aware of what’s she’s becoming.She deteriorates quickly and soon she’s completely dependent on Georges who, along with a nurse, spoon–feeds her and changes her. There’s a moment of infinite sadness when Georges brings Anne home from the hospital and moves her for the first time from her wheelchair to an easy chair. This made me think of perhaps the first time they ever danced together, awkward but tender.
This arresting image of the two holding each other for assistance as opposed to romance is almost mercilessly repeated. Another comesafter Anne has a second stroke. We see her barely able to complete sentences in one scene and then in the next she’s at the piano and a beautiful opus can be heard. Our heart sings with optimism; she’s getting better! Georges listens with pained eyes then reaches to the nearby stereo and turns the music off. Her life now is but a mask of what it was, a costume of her former existence. She wears the same clothes and sits at the same piano, but she cannot produce the same sounds, with the instrument or even her voice.
Would you believe me if I told you this is a heartwarming movie? Yes, it’s about the terrible curse of indignity, but it’s equally about the affection that would inspire Georges’ devotion to her. This must have been some romance. Georges, who has his moments of frustration, unblinkingly accepts the challenge of being her caretaker, suggesting unseen episodes in which Anne was similarly there for him, or to give thanks for the things she gave him that made it worth living eighty years. It’s about a connection between two people, one that can’t be severed by illness or even death, and one that is too personal for traditional morality. There is a heartwarming scene early on when Georges reveals that even after all these years together he still has stories to tell her; it is poignantly reprised in a closing moment when Anne, unintelligibly wailing, is comforted by a story of Georges—we don’t know whether it’s the story or the sound of his voice that calms her. This is the last moment they will share together.
The movie is informed by supporting performances by Isabelle Huppert as Eva, Georges’ and Anne’s daughter, and William Shimell, her husband, Geoff, who add concern for their relative but aren’t ready to be as dedicated to her as Georges is—perhaps they will be when time comes for them to take care of each other. Riva is remarkable, giving grace to a woman who’s losing her ability to function and even her sense of self. It’s an outstanding psychological and physical performance. Trintignant is her equal but isn’t given any of the flourishes that Riva’s condition allows; he’s simply a decent man who quietly assumes the role of tending to his wife’s body until he makes the decision that his wife is no longer inside of it.
Trintignant’s performance is in complete concert with Haneke’s directorial style, which simply observes. Haneke lets the camera capture the story and lets Trintignant and Riva tell it as if we were literally a fly on the wall. So completely does Haneke remove filmmaking tricks from Amour, that the opening and closing credits are run with absolutely no sound. Haneke can be found in the art direction, however, subtly revealing the passage of time and the domination of Anne’s condition, not only on her but on their lives. After the first stroke, Anne’s beside table remains tidy and neat, a reflection of the couple’s insistence that they have control over their situation, but it eventually becomes cluttered with the equipage of daily care, an indication that they’ve given way to convenience over normalcy.
I was reminded of my own bedside table that becomes littered with used tissues and medicine boxes at the sight of the slightest malady. I loved the book-lined shelves of Georges’ and Anna’s living room, which acted as a refuge from medical woes (Georges constantly changes the subject when Anne’s condition is discussed in that room) ;it made me think of the shelves of tapes in Haneke’s Cache(2005) and the bric-a-brac–laden home of Tritignant’s character in Kieślowski’s Red (1994).
Amour is a profound movie, one that doesn’t preach but one that doesn’t pity either. Haneke’s objective rendering of the scenario is his way of honoring what it’s about: that we must all die. It allows the warmth between Georges and Anna to save it from cold despair. This is an affirmative vote for humanity, of whom all of its members must meet the same end, but as a species has the capacity to understand the cruelty of natural law. Fortunately, it also has the facilities to brave it with compassion.