Beaming brides and welling grooms say them thousands of times every day, and mean them, but they are heavy words indeed: "Till death do us part." Movies have overwhelmingly concerned themselves with how characters get from meet-cute to first clinch to pledging those words at the altar. Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke's harrowing, intensely felt new film, Amour, trains its unblinking attention on what those words—and love itself—actually mean in the end.
Retired music teachers Georges (French screen royalty Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (ditto Emmanuelle Riva) are the kind of old couple that romantics cluck over. Put-together and genteel, they take a date night at a piano recital and chat on the bus afterward. At home they banter with the knowing intimacy of the long-married (when Georges tells Anne that she looks pretty, her "What's come over you?" is more puzzled than pleased). Their Paris apartment is unpretentiously elegant, their routine comfortable—as dotages go, they clearly enjoy an enviable one. And then one morning, Anne goes catatonic for a minute or two over breakfast, and everything changes.
But that's not where Haneke begins. He begins where it all ends, for everyone and every story—mortality suffuses Amour from its first frames. It hangs over the actors, too. Trintignant, the brooding leading man of The Conformist and Z, plays his actual 82 years. His slight limp is convincing. Given his relative frailty, watching grizzled Georges stoop to help the now-stroke-hobbled Anne into bed or off the floor approaches a can't-look situation.
The 85-year-old Rivas' physical transformation onscreen is astonishing and affecting. At first, she displays pluck and composure, reading in bed and shooing Georges away when he hovers. After a former protégé's visit devolves into barely disguised condescension and pity, she snaps, "Turn it off," when Georges pops in his new CD. As the reels unspool, she becomes more and more incapacitated, more and more helpless, less and less connected to Georges and to the person she was. Her body withers and gnarls, and her speech becomes disoriented, then nearly insensible, and eventually disappears, though not before passing through a stage where she mostly repeats a single word: "Hurt." Their happy life together narrows to Anne's terminal deterioration and Georges' dogged determination to care for her at home, no matter what.
Thanks to films such as Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, and Cache, Haneke has picked up a reputation as something of a cinematic sadist, cruel to characters and audiences alike. As his oeuvre continues to expand and mature, that reputation seems more and more undeserved. There is a difference between cruel and matter-of-fact, and while Amour is sometimes painful to watch, it is never removed from the vulnerabilities and emotions of its central characters as they struggle for dignity and hope in a situation that outstrips any youthful foible as a test of one's bonds. When you speak those vows on your wedding day, do you ever imagine yourself changing your spouse's diaper on a daily basis? Do you ever imagine being in a position where your spouse is forced to do that for you? And, as it turns out, there are things, even harder things, that maybe you could never imagine on your worst day, much less your happiest.
If there is any cruelty here, or any fault, it is in Haneke's rigor. The director goes with a look and feel that is unshowy in the extreme—stationary cameras, flat angles, long takes. There is diegetic music, as befitting the characters' professions and passions, but not a note of score otherwise. The focus never wavers from Georges and Anne and their dwindling world with its frustrations, angers, and despairs. There is no flash, no fat, which allows the best of what's here to sink in deep.
At the same time, the spartan nature of the story and Haneke's vision make what might otherwise seem minor wobbles feel more significant. Georges and Anne's adult daughter, played by Isabelle Huppert, has her own life, removed from her parents geographically, but her lack of intercession and Georges' refusal of her half-hearted stab at assistance seem willful on Haneke's part, sketched in as they are. A dream sequence doesn't distract from the bedrock reality of the rest of the film, but the denouement leaves behind minor mysteries that do.
Yet in Trintignant and Riva's performances, and in his obsessive focus on them, Haneke creates a humblingly subtle study of those wedding vows and the commitment behind them. Time and again, we flash on a series of shots where Georges wraps his arms around Anne as he helps her off the toilet or squeezes her around the waist as he helps her hobble across the foyer to her wheelchair—he almost as much in need of support as she is. It's as if Haneke is saying these clinches matter as much as—if not more than—any music-swelling close-up screen kiss, despite what the movies always tell us.