In all his films, writer-director Michael Haneke (2008's "Funny Games
") unflinchingly explores the grim, forbidding underbelly of often extreme life experiences, but never before has he brought such compassion and empathy to one of his projects as he does to "Amour." A love story about the cruel hands of fate and time, Haneke introduces Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) in the last year that the two of them will be togetherat least on an earthly plain. Long retired as music teachers, married for decades, and now in their eighties, the two of them have slipped into a comfortable day-to-day pattern of repetition, but it certainly seems as if they love each other just as much as they did at the start of their relationship. When Anne temporarily becomes unresponsive to her husband before abruptly returning to herself, Georges takes her to the doctor for a check-up. What they discover is an obstruction in Anne's carotid artery. When surgery fails, Anne quickly deteriorates in front of Georges' eyes, becoming paralyzed on her right side and mentally incapacitated. Georges' looks at her, and can no longer see the woman he fell in love with.
"Amour" is a tough, demanding drama, one that many viewers will not wish to face precisely because of its truthfulness. It's a sad part of living that there must, one day, be an end, and usually when this happens loved ones are left to deal with going on without the other person. If it is said that there is no greater loss than that of a child, then soul mates must come in a pretty close number two. The very thought of being ripped apart from the person you've chosen to spend the rest of your life with is too difficult to face for some, and writer-director Michael Haneke faces it head-on. For Georges and Anne, their trials and travails are particularly grueling as Georges can't help but watch Anne fade away from her debilitating disease. There isn't much more to the plot than this, though other characters, such as the couple's grown daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), and Anne's former student, musician Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), slip in and out. The focus, as it should be, is on Georges and Anne, the threat of a burglar in the neighborhood coupled with Georges' nightmares subtly potent symbols of the prized possession Georges stands to lose as Anne gets sicker.
Jean-Louis Trintignant (1994's "Red") and Emmanuelle Riva (1993's "Blue") portray Georges and Anne with a fearlessness and authenticity that feels at times like eavesdropping. They do not overdo their bond at the beginning, but through natural, everyday actions one gets a concise, intimate glimpse into their lived-in love for one another all the same. Riva is exceptionally compelling, if hard to watch, as her Anne little by little gets eaten away by her illness, clinging to life and yet obviously ready to die. For his part, Trintignant is uncompromising as Georges, refusing to outwardly give into his grief until he can scarcely stand it any longer. A scene where he takes his frustrations out on Anne, knowing full well that she can't help it, is harsh and brutal, over in the blink of an eye and yet not easy to shake.
There is a certain ambiguity to the final passages of "Amour," Michael Haneke wishing for the audience to draw their own conclusions as he flirts with chronology of time and harkens back to the opening scene, in which the fire department discovers the deceased body of Anne lying peacefully in her bed. Returning to their empty apartment at the end, it is now daughter Eva who is left to pick up the pieces and move on, because she must. "Amour" doesn't quite feature the cathartic release expected, emotions too often left bottled-up and low-key for the story to have the devastating force it could have. Nonetheless, this is a confident, lovingly articulated mood piece about a subject that is universal, yet rarely told. Indeed, Georges and Anne will one day be all of us. It is a notion almost too devastating to bear, but necessary to accept.