Indifference kills quietly in Amour, the new psychodrama from Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke (The White Ribbon, Cache). In this devastating character study about the hell that is caring for an ailing loved one, writer and director Haneke explores grief as a slow, gnawing process. Coping with loss does not, however, begin with a catalyst as mundane as physical illness. Instead, it starts and ends with a debilitating kind of depression that’s facilitated by solitude. For Haneke, grief is just as frightening as death because it’s also a draining progression that we necessarily go through alone.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), an elderly pensioner, cares for his dementia-afflicted wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) to the best of his abilities, but he is gradually consumed with depression, making the confines of his apartment eventually resemble a baroque prison to him. But Georges isn’t ostensibly alone. His daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) offers assistance, as do a couple of home healthcare aides. Still, Georges turns all of them away eventually, for unspecified reasons. Their concern, as Georges tells Eva at one point, is irrelevant, as it can only serve to separate him from his wife.
Georges’ belief that Anne needs his care clouds his judgment. He feels that no one else can deal with this burden, as no one else sees her or can care for her in the same way. However, this is only partially true: something as simple as a touch on the hand is enough to quiet Anne down during some of her more hysterical moments, but only for a while. Haneke treats Anne’s deterioration very matter-of-factly. Knowing that there is no hope for Anne’s recovery, Georges’ only recourse is to retreat further into his own tortured headspace and brood alone.
Amour is striking for its subdued and relatively un-provocative quality. Haneke has become known for poking a stick in viewers’ eyes and then asking them why they keep coming back for more. And yet Amour’s icy calm representation is of a piece with earlier films like The Seventh Continent and Lemmings, in that all three are characterized by existential despair. Nobody can intervene and save Georges from the nightmarish routine that Anne’s illness and his obsessive but un-sensationalized affection for her have forced upon him.
Moreover, Haneke even teasingly suggests that Anne’s illness is probably just an arbitrary event that pushed Georges over the edge. Georges has a nightmare about home invasion, but the concern about burglars is introduced early in the film, before he even knows Anne is sick. Anne’s illness only speeds up a process that began before Anne fell ill. Harrowing but also disturbing on a more subtle level, Amour addresses individual concerns even as it demonstrates Haneke’s cynical and highly seductive brand of agnosticism.
Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.