Michael Haneke is a filmmaker who has been fascinated by suffering throughout his career. Be it the stalker notes in Cache or the punishment ritual in The White Ribbon, tension and fear of death (or worse) has always been front and center in his films. In fact, he’s so interested in it that he made a film about the sadistic torture of a suburban family by home invaders (Funny Games), and then remade his own film again! The idea of a filmmaker with that kind of reputation making a film called Amour, the French word for “love”, is a little strange, at least until we learn what the film is about, both literally and subtextually.
The film chronicles two retired Parisian music teachers, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Both of them are in their 80s, and enjoy a simple, quiet life in retirement. One morning, Anne suffers a stroke, which later paralyzes her left side. At first the two don’t make a big deal out of her condition, but her mental and physical state begin to worsen as time goes on, and Georges is faced with the hardest choices of his life.
It’s interesting that Haneke decided to simply title his film with the French word for love. It’s a literal statement on what the film is about, but it also invites further exploration on what he wants to accomplish here. On the surface, the film is about a married couple whose relationship is tested by the reality of “till death do us part”, presenting Georges with an increasingly grim situation regarding his wife’s condition. One could argue the film serves as some sort of commentary on the ongoing debate on assisted suicide and “right to die” controversies. Georges is faced with the conflict of whether to keep the love of his life alive for just a little while longer, or to let her go. As her condition worsens, it becomes increasingly apparent that she no longer has the will to live, suffering to her last breath as a shadow of her former self. Anne’s own daughter even comments to Georges that she doesn’t recognize her mother anymore. Georges retorts that Anne is his wife, and this is his decision, and no one else’s.
But really, there’s so much more going on under the surface here. As I noted before, it’s telling that Haneke would title his film the way he did. Why “Love”? Perhaps he’s trying to explore the meaning of the word, or even the indescribable emotion behind it. Love it such an individual feeling for everyone, how could one film possibly seek to define it in two hours’ time? Haneke’s trademark fascination with human suffering is present, but for the first time, it feels like he’s interested in truly understanding it beyond mere voyeuristic obsession.
This becomes increasingly clear both in Haneke’s script and his masterful direction. Instead of lingering on stylish visual touches, the film is plainly shot, taking place entirely within Georges and Anne’s apartment. We’re invited to their home in the beginning, which starts off as a warm, inviting place, but slowly becomes a prison for both characters. The increasing claustrophobia brought on by the deliberate mis-en-scène only serves to emphasize Anne’s own condition as her body betrays her over time. In an age of visually fussy films, it’s refreshing to see a master filmmaker take his time to establish an environment that at first may seem plain or dull, but serves the themes of the story in every frame, recalling the work of Bergman or Tarkovsky, and just letting the story speak for itself. For a film to attempt to define something as subjective love, much has to be left for the viewer to decide how they feel about all of it. Such is the essence of cinema, and with Amour, Haneke finds himself tapping into a language only cinema can speak.
To that end, Amour may just be Haneke’s great masterpiece, the film he’s remembered for. It is no doubt easily his most mature and dense film to date, one that will be discussed for many years to come. Whether for Emmanuelle Riva’s towering and courageous performance, the directorial mastery, or because it’s simply a story that cuts deep into both harsh and comforting realities of life, love, and death, Amour is the kind of film that endures.