Michael Haneke is not a filmmaker noted for his humanism. At best, the humans that clutter the screen in Haneke films tend to be demonstrative cogs helping to illustrate some grander thematic, philosophical or political thrust, merely means to an end; at worst, they’re outright objects of scorn. That’s one of the reasons Amour, his second Palme D’Or winner in a row, comes as such a pleasant shock. Despite some early (possibly audience-baiting) gestures towards his usual shenanigans, Amour finds Haneke seemingly turning a new leaf, or perhaps merely exposing a heretofore under-regarded sensitivity.
Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva star as Georges and Anne, a well-off octogenarian couple whose existence seems to consist entirely of pleasantly placid days spent in each other’s company. That is, until the fateful morning that Anne’s mind seems to wander off into a distant place for a few minutes, before snapping back in place. She’s had a stroke, and both Anne and Georges are fully aware that this may well signal the permanent decline of her health, leading Anne to make Georges promise to not let her rot within hospital walls.
What follows is essentially a feature-length demonstration of true (as in genuine) love, not as a set of declarative statements or gestures – the word “love” is never spoken in the film – but as a set of committed acts and hard decisions. When their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) becomes privy to what’s happened, she is ultimately left out of the loop; this last phase is one to be shared only by Georges and Anne, to the exclusion (and confusion) of all others.
Free of non-linear editing (save for the opening sequence, which informs us of Anne’s fate), fourth-wall-breaking, audience judgment, historical theorizing, or academic exercises in long-take, Amour is almost shocking in its simplicity. Anne and Georges are presented as caring, straightforward individuals who have shared a decades-long bond; their upper-class status is incidental, not part of some larger comment about bourgeois complacency. (If there’s any relevance to their economic status, it’s this: their fate may be the best any of us has to look forward to.) Trintignant and Riva are both stunning, though Riva spends much of the film incapacitated to various degrees, leaving Trintignant as the audience surrogate for much of the experience. Together they cycle and struggle though pain, onto acceptance, and back (and forth) again, each time a little more isolated from the outside world, and a little more dependent on each other’s sole counsel and shelter.
Perhaps with time, Haneke enthusiasts will excavate Amour for deeper symbolic meanings; what of the pigeon that encroaches on Anne and Georges’s peace? What of the attempted break-in that occurs before we meet the doomed couple? What significance the specific piece Anne, a former music teacher, asks a rising-star pupil to perform? And what of the first post-flashforward shot, of a nearly-full audience preparing to witness a performance? Perhaps those readings will elicit greater insights. As it stands, though, Amour is a masterful work of the most plain, obvious sort: the kind of film that seems to contain some fraction of the essence of existence.