For many of us, death is a distant friend, a reified concept that exists only in our minds, far away from the cares and concerns of our daily existence. But the opening scene of Michael Haneke’s movie, “Amour” brings death to our doorstep. We see firemen breaking into an apartment in Paris. Nothing is spoken about why they are there. All is implied. We find a woman, many days past life, lying peacefully on her bed. We don’t know yet who she is, how she got there, or why she is there. All we see is death.
In an instant we simultaneously know and don’t know the entirety of “Amour.” There are no spoilers here, no ending to reveal. Through the gentle, subtle movements of Haneke’s camera, we come face to face with death in the opening sequence. Amour is not a film about plot, or reveal. It is not an easy film. It is not a film about resolutions, or heartfelt moments, or manufactured connections. It is as real and honest as a film could be about a subject such as death.
The rest of Amour lets us peer into the lives of Georges and Anne, retired musicians, living in a simple yet elegant apartment on a street in Paris. Music must mean a great deal to them. We see this very early on when we are witness to an audience from the point of view of a stage at a piano recital. It is here we first meet George and Anne. Instead of focusing in on them, it is up to us to determine their importance, as Haneke’s shot is a wide one of the entire spectrum of the audience. We later learn that this was a concert played by one of their proteges.
Georges and Anne come home from the concert alive and abuzz with life and happiness (albeit in their own reserved and quiet way.) Georges tells Anne she looks particularly beautiful that night. Anne asks Georges what has gotten into him. This is our first hint of what their marriage is like, a simple, subtle thing that defies formulaic expressions of love. It is very clear they are reserved in their words and their actions, even with one another.
Then, disaster strikes. While eating breakfast in their small and outdated kitchen, Anne is suddenly overtaken with blankness. She stares out into the distance as Georges tries to reach her, patting her neck with a cool washcloth in attempts to revive her. Nothing. Her eyes have glazed over with the familiar emptiness that afflicts so many individuals with mental impairment. As Georges puts on his clothes and prepares to call the doctor, the tap he has left on is suddenly turned off. He returns to the kitchen to find Anne sitting there, as if nothing happened, asking him why he left the tap on.
What ensues is a tortuous yet incredibly important two hours of movie going, one that is sure to reach into the very depths of your soul and force you to question the meaning of love. It is certainly an experience worth fighting for, however, and one that the viewer will not soon forget. Anne suffers first one stroke, then another, leading her down the inevitable path of death and decay that we all must face. Georges, forced into a promise to never return her again to a hospital or a home, takes care of her with gentle diligence. His love for her is never spoken, but it is shown in inestimable bounds and is tested beyond all imagination. I find it beautiful and fascinating that whenever he must move her from her wheelchair to her bed, or to the bathroom, or to the living room, it seems as if they are dancing.
Amour is a feat of incredible strength and restraint, both for the director, Haneke, and his actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant (Georges) and Emmanuelle Riva (Anne). For his part, Trintignant is reserved, poised, and dedicated to Anne until the very end, yet he reveals to us the inevitable cracks that begin to form in all those whose burden is the care of the terminally ill (and indeed, the mentally unsound). In the end, his burden becomes almost unbearable, both for him and for us. Riva is astounding, her portrayal of a stroke ridden victim is filled with the fieriness of her character (and perhaps her own being as an actress) even up until the very end, when the last glimpses of who she was fade away into the screen. Both we and Georges are forced to face the realization that sometimes, when we die, who we knew and who we loved become unrecognizable as their bodies and their minds decay. There has never been (and perhaps never will be) a more honest, real, transformative, and gut-wrenching portrayal of the end of life on screen. Give this woman an Oscar, for God’s sake.
It is striking that throughout the entirety of Amour, neither Georges nor Anne says “I love you” to one another. I am not entirely sure what this means. I like to think that Haneke means for his viewers to find their own meaning, but one can never be entirely sure. I shall take the optimist’s view that love is never spoken, but always shown.
I must admit I was deeply affected by this film, having had to go through many of the scenarios faced by Georges and Anne as a 26 year old due to my own illness over the past year. Watching it with my husband brought back memories of being carried from my hospital bed by nurses, slowly relearning to walk, to eat, to be normal again, dealing with the embarrassing yet inevitable consequences of being confined to a hospital bed. In a way, we experienced what many couples don’t experience until they reach the age of Georges and Anne. This film simultaneously forced me to question the bounds of my own love, and yet reinforced them beyond any doubt in my imagination. It is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen.
One may not immediately feel “good” after seeing Amour. Indeed, I spent much of it with silent tears streaming down my face. But it is an important film to see, to experience, and to contemplate as we face the inevitable end that is called death in this world.
If the purpose of film is to bring an aspect of human experience, such death, closer to our own understanding, then Amour certainly fills this role. It is a grand masterpiece, a sweeping epic that is somehow contained to a single apartment in Paris. It does not lay the important questions out there for the viewer, but forces you to find the questions that are right for you to ask of yourself. Meaning is not jammed down your throat, but subtly implied, and largely left up for the viewer to discern according to their own precepts.