The latest from writer/director Michael Haneke is a terrifying sojourn into the horrors of aging. There is compassion and the “love” from the title but Amour is not a light-hearted film. It’s one of the more agonizing, but brilliant looks at the human condition I’ve seen. It’s difficult but honest, and it’s this honesty that prevents the film from feeling like a never-ending doctor’s exam. The film’s approach may be clinical, but the result is far more full of life, albeit the harrowing final days of it.
The movie begins with a single long take that establishes where the story will end before cutting back to a more pleasant time. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are enjoying their retirement years. They attend classical music concerts, they playfully flirt, and they go about their routine. Specific details strengthen the illusion that the two leads have genuine intimacy with each other. For instance, Haneke captures the precise space and dimension of their apartment. I could draw you a diagram of where each room was because of how carefully the shots were composed.
This illusion is key because it makes the fear that comes next all the more real. Anne has an episode. One normal morning she just stares at Georges totally non-responsive. The scene is chilling and the subtle sound work adds to the intensity. Anne snaps out of her stupor with no memory of the event. Georges calls the doctor. The rest of the film’s plot is basically watching Anne slowly waste away before our very eyes. There are of course beats and a structure and incident, but the degradation is the thrust.
Georges loves and cares for her, and refuses to let her go. Trintignant is great. He plays up his character’s rational side while expertly hiding all the terror lurking underneath. He’s not 100% altruistic and his performance is careful about showing that. He’s pragmatic but as Anne drifts, so does his own mind. Riva is equally impressive. Her Anne is proud but gentle, and what happens to her will break your heart. It’s a complete physical and emotional transformation. Riva is so convincing, you’ll want to check the internet to make sure she’s okay.
The filmmaking isn’t flashy, but Haneke’s craft is as assured as ever. Through claustrophobic long takes the director doesn’t feed you the script, but instead forces you to examine what you’re seeing. It’s not a frustrating exercise in ambiguity rather a house of mirrors pushing you to confront your own nightmares. And don’t be fooled, this is a horror film. I jumped twice.
We’re all going to die, some of us more slowly and more painful than others, but Amour isn’t trying to bum you out. It’s not a jolly romp, but nevertheless an essential examination of love and death. Anne and Georges shut out the outside world. Their concerns are singular. It’s every viewers own tastes that will determine if they find their story comforting or immeasurably painful.