Michael Haneke offers a sentimentality-free tearjerker in “Amour”—a film so honest in dealing with end-of-life issues that its purity is a positive rebuke to all the maudlin movies on the subject. One might imagine that titling the film as Haneke has represents a deliberate response to “Love Story,” the 1970 weepie that’s surely the modern symbol of the mawkish hokum to which movies about losing one’s beloved can sink.
The film treats us kindly the showing us its ending up-front—authorities break into a well-kept but vacant Paris apartment to discover the body of an elderly woman, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) laid out lovingly on her bed, dressed beautifully and strewn with flowers. It then cuts back in time to reveal her and her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) attending a piano recital where a former student of hers, Eric (Alexandre Tharaud), is playing Schubert. The two return home to the flat they’ve obviously had for years, a concert grand prominently displayed and books and records shelved everywhere. They treat one another with the affection, and occasional irritation, that a couple who have been together for many decades can well understand.
But the next morning, as they’re breakfasting, Anne suffers what’s clearly a mini-stroke, going blank before returning to consciousness. It’s only the beginning of the physical deterioration that “Amour” follows with poignant and penetrating detail. Though there are occasional visits from others—Eric (who comes by for an uncomfortable visit), the doctor, a helpful neighbor, a nurse whom Georges quickly finds unsuitable, even a pigeon that flies into the apartment through an open window—the focus is on Georges’ determined care for his wife, whose condition grows worse and worse, progressing from paralysis on one side to virtually invalid status. Even the appearances by their daughter Eve (Isabel Huppert), on one occasion along with her husband, feel like intrusions into a totally self-contained world. And though there’s one visit to the hospital, after it Georges is adamant in holding to the promise he made to Anne after she returned home—never to put her there again, which in effect keeps the picture confined to the apartment from that point on.
The stars hide all hint of artifice in presenting these characters without exaggeration or—blessedly—the obvious tricks aimed at extracting easy emotional reactions. Riva is simply heartbreaking as a woman intent on maintaining her dignity despite her increasingly dependency, and Trintignant calmly evokes her husband’s undemonstrative devotion as he seeks to her needs and endures her occasional outbursts, though his own fragility and sadness are palpable. These are masterful performances that show a life’s work of acting experience, remarkable career capstones. Everyone else in the cast—including Huppert—defers to them, and rightly so.
As for Haneke, he and cinematographer Darius Khondji similarly avoid any hint of technical ostentation, choosing to employ straightforward compositions and simple camera moves that don’t italicize and over-punctuate. The overall visual palette is warmer and softer than is usual in the director’s work, but not egregiously so; there’s admirable restraint in their approach as well as the actors’. At a couple of points—the appearance of that pigeon, which Georges quietly tries to capture, or the threat of intruders coming into the apartment—Haneke teases viewers with the thought that the film might erupt into the violence that’s so often been an element of his cinematic world. But in this case one needn’t fear; the common human tragedy that Anne and Georges represent brings quite enough pain, Haneke seems to be saying, on its own, and there’s no need of superfluous additions to it. Even when, at the very close, he chooses to leave pure realism behind with a coda that might call to mind (though without similar exuberance) “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir,” he laces it with a dose of ambiguity.
An elegantly understated production design by Jean-Vincent Puzos and editing by Monika Willi and Nadine Muse that allows the performances to breathe like fine wine add to the quality of a film that ranks with Haneke’s best—which, given the excellence of his body of work, is saying a great deal indeed.