The subject of Michael Haneke’s shattering Amour is right there in the title. It’s about the indignities of growing old and the inevitability of death, but only in the same way The Master concerns Scientology—as a means to an end, a phenomenon that reveal its characters’ true nature. The thought that loving relationships end peacefully, with a slow fade into the twilight of shuffleboard and 5 o’clock dinners, rarely describes the reality for most couples; people often have to face the hardship of seeing their partner deteriorate and die before they do. It’s a test of devotion and love that lurks in the unforeseen distance from the honeymoon phase: Not only do people have to care for loved ones in low moments, when they’ve lost control of their bodies, but they often have to do it when they aren’t in peak shape, either. Death dictates the terms. Human beings have to adapt to them.
A director known for the icy classicism and genre subversion of films like Funny Games and Caché, Haneke has a pitilessness that could not be more perfect for Amour, which would collapse at any whiff of sentimentality. And he’s cast two French New Wave stalwarts in Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who have a rapport together that’s uncannily real, as if they’ve known each other all their lives. Haneke extinguishes all hope immediately, starting with the police smashing down an apartment in Paris to discover Riva’s corpse lying on a bed. From there, he flashes back to happier times as Trintignant and Riva, both retired school teachers, set about their contented routine. One afternoon over tea, Riva simply freezes up and remains in a catatonic state for a couple minutes before finally coming around and not remembering anything that had happened. Things go downhill fast: A surgery to unblock Riva’s carotid artery leaves her paralyzed on one side and confined to a wheelchair, then a stroke sends her over a cliff. Her one demand, while she was still of clear mind, was for Trintignant to get her out of the hospital and take her home for care.
The Haneke film Amour recalls most strongly is his first, 1989’s The Seventh Continent, another straightforward march toward death, albeit of the meticulously planned variety. The earlier film follows a couple that resolves to dismantle and extinguish their lives (and their child’s), while Amour approaches it from the grueling perspective of a man who has to sustain a life that will end just as surely. It’s a prickly affair, to be sure, as Trintignant lashes out at his daughter (Isabelle Huppert) and a nurse for their inadequate support, and cares for his wife well after her quality of life has evaporated. But that title, Amour, couldn’t be more sincere. There are subtle kindnesses exchanged while Riva is still lucid, and the steadfastness of Trintignant’s care honors his wife’s wishes when it’s seemingly beyond his capacity to do so. Even moving her out of her wheelchair is an act of intimacy that could, in healthier times, be mistaken for a lover’s embrace. Haneke being Haneke, Amour is still a bracingly unsentimental film, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for heartless.