(Michael Haneke, 2012)
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignanat) and Ann (Emmanuelle Riva) are an elderly couple who live in a large, ageing Paris apartment. In a single sequence of the couple attending the piano recital of one of Ann's old students, Haneke manages to communicate the strength of their bond, and their comfortably bourgeois lifestyle. And then, he tears it away from them; inch by agonising inch.
Ann suffers a stroke and an operation to correct the damage fails. She is paralysed down her right side and needs a wheelchair. Her condition steadily deteriorates. Georges, having promised that she will not return to hospital, patiently cares for her in their home until he cannot cope alone. Their daughter Eve (Isabelle Huppert) appears occasionally from her busy life in London and is appalled by what she finds, but Georges is dismissive. The ending is inevitable, and we are shown it at the beginning when police break down the door and discover Ann's body upon the bed.
Haneke keeps his style simple and undemonstrative, all the better to boost the power of such moving, universal material. He finds solid mastershots for almost every room in the apartment, lets cinematographer Darius Khondji light them with a muted, autumnal brand of realism, and more or less returns to them throughout the film, emphasising the numbing repetition accompanying Ann's slow decline with every shot of Georges shuffling through the same doorway.
Haneke's reputation for coldness, and even cruelty, seems absolutely unfair after this film, which is warm and empathetic throughout, which keeps its two leads in focus and monitors every emotional pulse within its elliptical structure, which is minutely callibrated and all the more devastating for it.
The few grace notes allowed to the couple once Ann's illness has set in only serve to make the long slide to death that much more painful, the loss of her dignity and sensitivity that much more unfair. They laugh together early on, and she comments "Its beautiful, life. So long." while looking through their photo albums, still appreciative of what she has, and has had. Later she is a mostly-mute, bedbound invalid, bellowing incoherently, spitting water at her husband when he tries to feed her.
Their daughter's tearful shock at her mother's condition reflects that of the audience - Haneke cuts out the transition to the time after her second stroke, when she deteriorates most rapidly, and so we suddenly jump to her struggling to form words and unable to move.
Georges response to all of this is even and calm. He keeps going, rarely losing patience, acknowledging how sad it is verbally to Eve without any visible emotion. Near the climax two scenes depict him exploding to some degree, and they are perhaps the most charged in the film, the most fraught with that repressed emotion.
There are also a couple of moments of extremely black comedy, which may be entirely necessary in such a grim story. But this is not a depressing film. It is too good, exhilaratingly so, to be depressing.
Somewhat reminiscent of Maurice Pialat's fine La Gueule Ouverte, Amour is a beautiful, wrenching drama. Its two leads are absolutely superb; fearlessly confronting their own age and its possible consequences, sadness and acceptance meeting in their faces.