Love, in its first flourishes and blissful commitments, is a mainstay of the movies. Films are filled with magical moments and the rollercoaster ride that follows, with romance seen as a young person’s prerogative. When more mature forms of affection are depicted, it is the boredom and routine of mid-life stages – or the aftermath of a messy divorce – that draws attention. Contemplations of intimacy beyond that point are relegated to background glimpses of happy grandparents, if even seen on screen at all.
Stating its emotion in the title, Michael Haneke’s intelligent recent Cannes Film Festival victor Amour (or Love) shows a couple that have traversed and survived the entire gamut of loving stages to become entrenched in their denouement. Well into their eighties, their bond has been cemented after a lifetime of complementary careers and shared offspring, with the revered respect in which they hold each other evident in each interaction. Yet, their advancing age still presents the biggest test for their decades-long relationship. As infirmities and illness attack as each approaches their end, their true devotion is yet to be proven.
The conclusion of their life together is announced at the beginning of the film, with transfixing tenderness and touching, tragic finality. Once the outcome is known, Haneke devotes his feature to unravelling the events leading to that point, starting with retired music teachers Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, Hiroshima mon amour) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, And God Created Woman) attending a former student’s recital. Whilst neither moves as freely as they may have in their youth, both are active and in possession of all their faculties. Over the next day, a series of incursions robs Anne of her health and happiness, casting Georges into the role of cautious carer.
Upon her return from hospital, Anne elicits a promise from her husband to ensure she never returns to such a facility. He submits to her will despite his own misgivings and those of their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert, The Piano Teacher), but fulfilling her wishes proves more difficult than it seems. Over days, weeks and months, Anne’s condition steadily but surely worsens, from partial paralysis and difficulty with mobility, to a devolution back to a muttering, childlike state. In attempting to prolong her existence – and preventing her end at her own hand – Georges devotion is evident as he watches his beautiful, bright partner of many years simply fade away.
In a meticulous and moving musing on the end that awaits us all, and the compassion and dedication we all hope will go with it, Haneke’s calculating, controlled precision drives the exacting and emotive feature. Set entirely within their lavishly furnished Parisian apartment after their initial concert excursion (in a stunning achievement of production design), the poignant, powerful film chronicles the couple’s efforts to find a sense of normality in a series of static, stoic scenes. Of course, comfort never comes amidst such challenging circumstances, with the retention of dignity in the face of nature’s insistence of the opposite the best possible development. That too, disappears with enough time as all things do, as a life lived with love is struck by an unexpected but inevitable decline.
Indeed, due to the finessed foreshadowing that opens the uncharacteristically sensitive effort, and the unrelenting unease that infiltrates all acts that follow, the shadow of the inescapable end lingers over every moment. As the minutiae of Anne’s infirmity and Georges’ attempts to arrest her deterioration are demonstrated in devastating detail, the audience waits for the unavoidable, whilst witnessing a husband and wife’s ultimate acts of affection. Simple tasks become mammoth undertakings, as seemingly straightforward scenes of domesticity become an ode to their bond. Underneath each, an immutable depth incites a physical, psychological reaction, mirrored on screen and in the watching viewer.
After such strong responses to the Austrian auteur’s previous offerings, the majesty and quiet menace emanating from his eleventh feature hardly comes as a surprise. Whilst the dark twist that marks his work may appear absent, there’s much to question and contemplate in his fourth film to win him a Cannes major prize (after The Piano Teacher’s Grand Prix win, Cache’s best director nod and The White Ribbon’s Palme d’Or triumph). Accordingly, ambiguity still reigns supreme within his current uncomfortable expression of human suffering, with paying astute attention emphatically advised. Beautiful, brave and brutal whilst embracing and pushing the boundaries, Amour not only essays love in its truest form, but the writer / director’s unmistakable gift for crafting masterful, meaningful movie musings on mankind.