“Promise me one thing.”
For someone as famously attuned to the intellectual thriller oftentimes leaning towards the hidden recesses of humanity’s darkest proclivities, seeing writer/director Michael Haneke‘s name attached to the universally lauded Amour was always a bit of a puzzle. Depicting the final months in the lives of two eighty-year old former music teachers—Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva)—after the lady of the house suffers a debilitating stroke, the film’s rather heartbreaking portrayal of sacrifice and unwavering adoration is without a doubt an aberration in the auteur’s oeuvre. In fact, until the final credits rolled I still wondered when the big twist turning everything into some sort of a psychological experiment would come. But I guess the situation facing this aging couple is devastating enough to not need extra, superfluous tragedy muddying the water.
Opening on two scenes gorgeously juxtaposing beginning and end—life and death—we watch a group of fireman break down the couple’s door to find Anne’s deceased body serenely resting amidst flower petals atop her bed. It’s the inevitability we understand before even sitting down and Haneke wastes no time explaining how there won’t be any miracles just as there weren’t when a similar situation occurred to his own family. In order to reach this impossible finish, however, we do still require a start and there’s no better one than watching Georges and Anne sit down inside a sold out concert hall for the first and only scene outside the walls of their Parisian apartment. They’re happy, full of life, and actively traversing retirement with pleasure. And then everything changes in an unblinking eye.
It would be easy to lump Amour in with something like The Sea Inside, but it would be misleading. While Alejandro Amenábar‘s look into Spain’s Euthanasia laws has its handicapped victim desperately looking to alleviate his pain and suffering at its center, Haneke is more interested in what such circumstances do to the people on the periphery. When Anne returns home after her first stroke, she forces her husband to promise that he’ll never take her back to the hospital. Call it pride or embarrassment, not wanting her final moments to be a burden for those she loves doesn’t put her in the minority on the subject. So, as she disintegrates into a shell of her former self, it’s Georges and their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) who lock horns about what may or may not be best.
There is an unparalleled authenticity to the short snippets shown as time passes: a second stroke hits and well wishes pile up. The first spell occurs without fanfare—Anne’s immovable body staring into the distance while Georges attempts to elicit a reaction; emotions run high as frustrations takeover and both decide not to talk about the illness at all; and life gradually moves on with automated wheelchairs and hired professional help. Underlying everything their outward appearances expose to the outside world, however, is a biting look at love’s propensity for showing its teeth. The once mild-mannered Anne turns surly and distant, wishing to escape the world just as the mercurial Georges morphs into a compassionate nurse willing to do whatever it takes to show the level of devotion she always gave him.
The film carries itself as a series of reaction shots while Georges does his best to keep his head despite the impossible situation. He will not accept her pessimistic pragmatism and yet also refuses his daughter’s wishes to put her in a home. They’ve survived on their own for too long to now retreat and ask for help, but the alternative may be more daunting than they could ever have imagined. As Anne turns into a motionless shadow screaming gibberish on a good day, Georges ambles about to keep her comfortable and hold tight to waning threads of sanity. Nightmares begin to haunt his slumber as daydreams help him escape to happier times, seamlessly cutting with the present to disorient and shatter the audience when their harrowing reality returns. These are the moments where Haneke shines.
That isn’t to say the unfiltered plot points devoid of artifice aren’t effective drama. Trintignant and Riva are way too good to even fathom thinking so. Their performances lift what would have been a well-received independent film to the level many critics have readily placed it. Winner of the Palm d’Or at Cannes as well as the front-runner for Foreign Golden Globe and Oscar, Amour excels because of its extreme verisimilitude and confident depiction of mankind’s inability to cope with tragedy. Watching Huppert reduced to tears after an extended session with Riva at her most unintelligible; seeing Alexandre Tharaud‘s pianist alter demeanor once learning of the stroke; and hearing Ramón Agirre‘s concierge tell Georges how impressed he and his wife are with his handling of the ailment only help to prove just how overwhelmed this husband must be.
A metaphorical pigeon finding its way into their house aside, there is very little that rings false leading up to Georges’ last straw being broken. Whether his actions are selfish or selfless is up to you to decide because while many see the debate of someone like Terri Schiavo in 2005 as giving life a chance, others believe it to be a sick, twisted circus preventing a soul from being freed in lieu of fifteen minutes of fame. In the end it’s all about the film’s title and how far we’re willing to go in its name. Is it enough to put yourself second when your lover needs you? Is it right to ignore his or her wishes due to personal pain? Like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet gave love out of death, so too does Haneke’s Amour.
 Emmanuelle Riva as Anne. Photo by Darius Khondji, (c) Films du Losange, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Jean-Louis Trintignant as Georges. Photo by Darius Khondji, (c) Films du Losange, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
 Isabelle Huppert as Eve. Photo by Darius Khondji, (c) Films du Losange, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics