On the one hand, Michael Haneke’s Amour is an utterly bleak experience, devoid of any attempt to entertain and uncompromising in its misery. On the other hand, the film is a magnificent tour-de-force, a genuinely raw and emotional journey through the final months of life. No wonder it’s split opinions so much.
Neither of these descriptions is inaccurate, by the way, but equally, neither really captures what this film is. Essentially a two-hander, it follows elderly couple Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintigant) as their comfortable lives are torn apart by illness. When Anne has a stroke early in the film, it leaves her crippled and bitter, fearful of being hospitalised and looking forward to death. A second stroke renders her bedridden, unable to communicate. Throughout this, she is looked after by Georges, a stoic yet clearly broken figure who deals with uncaring nurses, friends and daughter Eve (Isabelle Huppert) in a brusque manner, determined to preserve his wife’s dignity. As the couple become more withdrawn and closed from the world, the film moves slowly but steadily towards the inevitable breaking point – something telegraphed in the opening scene, ensuring that the audience know there will be no miraculous happy ending to this story.
Haneke shoots this in his usual style – long, static takes with no background music that offer no relief for the viewer, forcing us to watch the uncomfortable, painful interactions between Georges, Anne and others. It allows the story to unfold at a steady, dreadful pace, the gradual decay of Anne seeming all too real. This is a true horror story about ageing – the price we face for living to a ripe old age being the slow, horrible decline of our bodies and our minds. Rarely has a film touched on this with such painful reality, and understandably so – we like our old people in movies to be eccentric, loveable and feisty, not slowly dying before our eyes.
The casting of Riva and Trintigant is inspired, given that we know these two actors from their younger days when they were the height of New Wave cool. Seeing them, so old, so fragile, so worn down by the sheer hell of living through these final months, is especially unnerving. It feels like watching a family member. Both actors give extraordinary performances – Riva’s move from lively music teacher to almost comatose old woman is truly remarkable, and you have to wonder what psychological effect it had on the 85-year-old actress (the fact that she was beaten in the Oscars by Jennifer Lawrence should tell you everything you need to know about the value of those awards). Trintigant is equally good – he plays his role to perfection, a realistic portrayal of a man who simply gets on with things, rarely letting his emotions slip unless he thinks others are upsetting his wife, keeping himself under control until he finally breaks. When he does, it’s a short but stunning moment of violence that allows the grand tragedy of the film to finally culminate.
Thankfully, Haneke avoids sentiment. His cold, distant style ensures that the film never becomes manipulative in its melancholy, never cynically jerking tears – one can only imagine a Hollywood version of the same story, awash with soft focus, emotive music and weeping characters. This ensure that the emotional rawness of the film doesn’t become syrupy, but rather lingers with you. This film might not leave audiences weeping, but it will hit them in a much more profound way.
Amour is by no means a work of entertainment. It feels like a film from another time and makes no compromises to audience needs or expectations. I can certainly understand why some people hate it, because the film makes no attempt to be likeable. For many viewers, the relentlessly grim story will feel like torture – and for anyone with a fear of ageing, it will be a genuinely horrible experience. But I found this quiet, painful film both upsetting and astonishing – a modern, uncompromising, confrontational masterpiece that will linger in my mind for a long time.