Michael Haneke’s latest award-winning feature, Amour (2012), is at times almost unbearable to watch. The film begins with a door crashing open as firemen break into an apartment to find the corpse of an old woman. She is lying on a bed, carefully dressed in black – her features are serene and she’s surrounded by flower petals. We then track back in time to a few months earlier. Two elderly Parisians, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), are retired music teachers who still enjoy a comfortable existence. However, their lives are torn apart when Anne suffers a stroke and Georges has to care for her.
After undergoing an operation, Anne arrives home paralysed down her right side and makes Georges promise not to hospitalise her again. At first, Anne gets around in a wheelchair and the couple can still talk together, listen to music, read and, on occasion, even laugh. Then Anne deteriorates dramatically. She suffers another stroke, becomes bed-ridden, and can no longer communicate properly. Gradually, she loses all consciousness of who she is and her surroundings. Georges is left with a terrible choice.
Haneke is unrelenting in what he chooses to film, whether it’s Anne’s face and body contorted in pain, Georges’ quiet desperation as he tries to feed her or the nurse’s insensitive handling of her patient. Sound is also amplified – we hear every mouthful of food Anne swallows – and “hurts” is a constant refrain. Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), a successful musician who lives abroad, visits only rarely and when she does, finds it hard to cope. Conversely, her face is frequently obscured as she turns away to face a window or hides it in her hands. We realise that she is now irrelevant to them, her parents have no need for her, for it is their long past together that sustains them.
A profound meditation on old age and mortality, Amour is rich in symbolism: A grand piano dominates the sitting room but is no longer played; an errant pigeon becomes trapped inside the apartment until it is caught and smothered by Georges; and a photo-album becomes the sole remnant of the couple’s love and life together. Those who have experienced the loss of a loved one will connect with the film on many levels. Others will be moved by Haneke’s sensitive treatment of a difficult subject and the provocative and topical questions he raises. There’s a brilliant and terrible conceit at the heart of Amour; a desperate act imbued with pure love.
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