Lots of directors make movies about love, but they usually deal with the concept when it's relatively simple -- when people are first falling under its spell and figuring out what to do, or when emotions and misunderstandings make it unexpectedly complicated. Michael Haneke's film Amour, however, is a tale about love at its most terribly, backbreakingly difficult. The movie tells the story of two people who have been together nearly all of their lives, and have come to a point when their relationship carries obligations that the photogenic twenty- or thirtysomethings in rom coms are never asked to deal with. It's a powerful and challenging work, sometimes painful to watch, but also one of the most honest and moving films about real relationships in recent years.
Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant play Anne and Georges, two retired musicians and educators who live in a comfortable flat outside Paris. While both are in their eighties, they still take care of themselves and enjoy going to concerts and visiting the younger artists they've mentored over the years. One day over breakfast, Anne abruptly goes silent in the middle of a conversation and sinks into what seems like a catatonic state for a few moments. Georges, alarmed, insists Anne see a doctor; she's diagnosed with a problem in her brain and recommended to have surgery, which is 95-percent effective in such cases. However, Anne's luck is not good, and when she returns home, she's paralyzed on her left side and needs a wheelchair to get around. Georges may not be as strong or patient as he once was, but he stands up to his new responsibilities, helping Anne in and out of her wheelchair, assisting her with her physical therapy, cooking the meals, looking after the shopping, and helping her dress and wash herself. Anne is keenly aware that this is difficult for Georges, and kindly but firmly tells him that she never wants to go back to the hospital and would prefer to die before her condition becomes more serious. Georges struggles to keep his promise to keep her at home, but when Anne suffers a stroke, her condition deteriorates further; his responsibilities are significantly more challenging even after he hires a nurse, and as Anne becomes a pale shadow of the woman she once was, Georges' strength and sanity are stretched to the breaking point.
Outside of a brief moment at the beginning in which Anne and Georges attend a recital and come home on the bus, Amour takes place entirely in their apartment, and for the majority of the film, Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant are the only people onscreen. The movie rests squarely on their shoulders, and they carry it with performances that are little short of miraculous. Riva's turn as Anne is remarkably brave, as she simulates her infirmities with a disquieting accuracy and communicates the struggle to maintain her dignity even when her character can do little more than stare and howl; her performance doesn't have a drop of sentimentality in it, and is all the more moving and compassionate for it. Trintignant's work as Georges is more subtle, but no less effective; while Riva acts, he reacts, and struggles valiantly to hold on to some semblance of the life he once knew until the wear becomes visible in his every movement, no matter how calm he seems on the surface. Few actors have so accurately captured the quiet agony of watching a loved one fade into disease and decay, and even at his most angry and confused, Trintignant never allows us to forget how much Georges loves Anne. Isabelle Huppert contributes a brief but devastatingly effective performance as Georges and Anne's daughter, while Alexandre Tharaud underplays well as one of their former students.
Writer and director Michael Haneke has never been afraid of material that's raw and emotionally intense -- as anyone who has seen Funny Games or The Piano Teacher can attest -- but while Amour never puts a rosy glow on a story that's grim and often heartbreaking, he also never lets the movie descend into agony for its own sake, and there's a genuine humanity on display that's clearly recognizable no matter how painful the film is to watch. There's an austerity in the visual style and rhythms of the picture that suggests Haneke is showing us no more and no less than what he needs to -- we are watching two people who love one another struggle through the final, inevitable chapter of their lives together, and there's a troubling beauty in it that's no less affecting for all of the pain along the way.