After a brief but shocking prologue sequence, which cannot be revealed without spoiling a major plot point, Michael Haneke’s Amour opens with a protracted shot of an audience attending a piano recital at a major concert venue in Paris. It continues even after the music starts playing, and the music continues to play even after the camera cuts away to various shots of backstage partying amongst the musicians and specially invited guests. At this point, the identity of the pianist remains a mystery. The opening shot is the first of many that linger, not long enough to seem needlessly protracted but certainly long enough to be quietly, persistently uncomfortable. I believe this is Haneke’s attempt at distancing himself from overt theatricality; rather than indulge in cinematic editing techniques – lightning quick intercutting, sweeping pans, unnecessary zooming – he opts to keep the camera stationary and capture emotions as they actually happen.
Once this is established, we meet George and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), retired music teachers now in their eighties. Although not much is known of their earlier lives, it’s obvious that they’ve been happily married for many years and have settled into a quiet yet content life within the walls of their spacious apartment unit. But then something strange happens one morning during breakfast; quite unexpectedly, Anne goes silent in the middle of a sentence and spends the next few minutes catatonically staring off into space. She doesn’t respond to Georges’ repeated verbal inquiries, and she takes no notice when he dabs a cool, damp rag on her face and neck. Not long after, she comes to and continues her daily tasks, having absolutely no memory of what has just happened.
It’s soon discovered that Anne had a mild stroke. Medical intervention, typically successful in cases such as this, ends up harming her more than it helps, which is to say that a well-intentioned operation resulted in the right side of her body becoming virtually paralyzed. Almost completely bound to a wheelchair, we initially see a physically limited woman whose mind and verbal communication skills remain unaffected. She makes Georges promise to never take her back to the hospital. She also begins to seriously consider the fact that she no longer wants to go on living, that she’s merely a burden to her husband. Indeed, Georges has taken on responsibilities that he never thought he would have to take on – at least, not at this point in his life. Although there’s obviously physical and emotional strain, there are no apparent signs that he’s doing what he does out of some masculine obligation to be a caregiver. Quite simply, he does what he does out of unconditional love.
This will be tested after a second stroke seriously worsens Anne’s condition. She’s now confined to her bed. She has moments of lucidity, but for the most part, she has devolved into a pathetic shell of a human being. She rambles incoherently, often in incomplete sentences. She often moans endlessly, usually with the word “hurts.” During her temporary bouts of clear thinking, she becomes defiant, eating sparingly and eventually refusing to drink her water (when he tries to make her drink, she immediately spits the water back at him). Georges tries to reason with her; if she persists in acting this way, he will have no choice but to take her to a nursing home, where they can force feed her. Without food and water, she will die. He asks her sternly if that’s what she really wants. She can only look at him piercingly as a response. In a momentary lapse of judgment, he slaps her in frustration.
The film, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is one of the year’s most powerful and challenging, in large part because of the way illness and caregiving are depicted. There’s no sensationalism, no heightened drama, no unnecessary sermons about the quality of life and the rights of the individual; there’s only unflinching honesty. We see the indignity of waking up in a soiled bed, the embarrassment of being scrubbed naked in the shower by a nurse who is for all intents and purposes a complete stranger, and the difficulty of adapting both physically and emotionally to limited mobility. There’s understandable anger, frustration, and fear, especially in the eyes of Georges and Anne’s daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who now leads her own life and is married to a British man her parents don’t much care for. And yet we never question her love for her mother. She and her father simply process their feelings in very different ways.
Haneke is known for leaving his films open to interpretation, and indeed, specific scenes in Amour are baffling in both their construction and their visual symbolism. Two scenes, for example, feature a pigeon that has flown into the apartment through an open window. In one of them, Georges captures it under a blanket and, rather than immediately release it back outside, caresses it tenderly. Could it be that he’s now drawn to living beings that, in some manner, are helpless? And then there are the final two scenes, which are visually stunning and yet are narratively impenetrable. I don’t think it matters how I interpret these scenes; I think each audience member is supposed to apply his or her own meaning to them, which is to say that there’s no right or wrong answer. What’s indisputable is that, even in the hardest of times, Georges’ love is unconditional.