Sometimes the aged body revolts, leaving a once vibrant human life facing the inevitably slow process of physical decay. Old age can become a metaphorical tomb, welded shut by fading memories and unspoken emotions, a place where the outside world fades from consciousness and leaves only the opportunity for personal reflection behind. One lingering question persists: can lasting devotion and intimate love exist within such a suffocating process? Michael Haneke’s Amour dares to answer yes, addressing the possibility that nightmares and hopeful dreams can co-exist in the same closed-off cinematic space. By encasing the viewer in the expansive apartment of an elderly couple experiencing the grim reality of impending death, Haneke examines a nearly impossible scenario with brilliant restraint and complexity.
The opening moments of Amour find Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) attending a piano concert held by one of Anne’s former students. In a great straight-on shot of the crowd that holds for over a minute, we can barely glimpse the elderly couple in the middle of the frame, staring at the stage, waiting calmly and quietly together for the music to start. They’ve probably attended hundreds of such events over the course of their relationship, but this will be their last. A few cuts later, the couple returns to their upper-class domicile, bantering about family matters over a quaint breakfast. When Anne suddenly stops speaking and looks stricken, failing to respond to one of Georges’ questions, it’s clear some kind of terrible shift has occurred. Haneke spends the rest of the film documenting Anne’s brutally frank deterioration and Georges’ fracturing mental state.
Despite the grave subject matter, Haneke avoids turning the couple’s suffering into a grotesque sideshow. We feel their pain in every striking composition, especially when Darius Khondji’s stunning medium shots hover above Anne lying in bed, her darkly tinted eyes in haunting contrast with her increasingly jaundiced skin. But the recurring presence of found memory provides a constant reminder that there’s still emotion to mine beneath this cold façade. When Georges loads Anne into her wheelchair, he tries to remember a story from his youth about a film-going experience that changed his life. He states, “I can’t remember the film’s title, but I remember the emotions.” In this instance and many more, we get the sense his sheer attempt at remembrance offers warm comfort despite the fact that he is mired in an ongoing personal hell.
Like most of Haneke’s oeuvre, Amour strips down set design and audio cues to suit the film’s stark material. Darius Khondji’s precise camera is at its best when slowly moving through the apartment foyer, or momentarily out into the hallway for a brilliantly realized dream sequence involving wet feet and an errant hand. But Haneke only delves into the surreal a few times, instead letting the ambient noises of Anne’s cries echo like a requiem in the cramped space. In many ways, the sounds of Amour are most essential, markers of disappearing time and waves of emotion slowly fading to black.
Finally, Haneke’s layered mise-en-scene would be somewhat hollow without the two devastating performances at the film’s center. Trintignant and Riva entrench themselves completely in the experience, their main form of communication often coming in the form of striking facial contortions and long distance eye contact. This instinctual sense of togetherness between two long-time companions gives Amour its heart and soul, permanently instilling in us the thought that love is never truly fulfilled until that final fade to black.
Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.