Michael Haneke never makes it easy. The director behind such crisply challenging dramas as Caché, The Piano Teacher, and The White Ribbon sets his sights on the slow experience of human expiration in his almost playfully titled Amour. This story of octogenarian couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) is one of mental and physical decline. It's the dark, consuming crawl to death chronicled in tight segments of real-time horror. Haneke wants us to feel the pain of loss at the end of love in disturbing detail, without a simple escape or an uplifting note of optimism to touch our hearts. Amour creates wounds, then refuses to let them heal. It cuts when genre expectations suggest it should soothe, just another reminder that we're in Haneke's world, where everything, even love, comes at a devastating price.
When we first meet Georges and Anne, they seem happy and full of life. Returning from a concert one night, they arrive home and flit around their Paris apartment in what we can imagine are their regular ways. Little do they or we know, but we'll never leave this apartment again. The next morning brings a blackout for Anne at breakfast, soon revealed to be the early signs of a stroke that will spell Anne's downfall. From that point on, Amour becomes a chilling, glacially paced exercise in isolation.
In a brilliant effort to sharply balance our connection to both sides of the struggling couple, Haneke often focuses on Georges and his attempts to deal with this situation, but the filmmaker contains us in the same way that Anne is trapped. When Georges attends the funeral of a friend, we stay at home with Anne and hear about the funeral afterwards just as she does. But Georges remains our nearly constant companion, eventually participating in many scenes that don't involve the increasingly anchored Anne.
This decision to keep us in the apartment, but have us spend so much time just sitting and grieving with Georges is an astonishingly adept way to ease us into each character's shoes. Haneke could easily have chosen to tie our experience entirely to Anne's, but he takes the isolation factor and enhances its emotional impact by also tying us to Georges and his experience of first patiently aiding his ailing wife and then slowly finding himself increasingly alone in the familiar spaces of their home.
As Anne slips deeper into the darkness and the apartment becomes a second home for nurses whose duties indicate Anne's declining state (the adult diapers in bed are a particularly sad addition, the humiliation worn by Riva with aching authenticity), we develop an understanding of the plights of the two characters simultaneously. We're as trapped as Anne, as helpless as Georges. The deeply felt performances by Riva and Trintignant provide us with further reason to see this situation from both perspectives. They fill their characters with such honesty that there's never a false note hit by either actor.
Using static camera setups and long takes, Haneke gives his cast specific space to achieve a harrowing sense of inescapable reality. When Georges has to help Anne out of her wheelchair and into a nearby seat with a careful shuffle across the floor, we watch the entire act unfold in one shot that leaves every movement bare to our eyes. There are no cuts or close-ups intended to fabricate dramatic effect. This real-time approach forces us into the frustrating place that Georges and Anne inhabit, an area of agony both physical and psychological.
This sense of isolation, of geographical limitations hits its cinematic peak in a scene where Haneke and cinematographer Darius Khondji capture full-frame shots of several paintings in the apartment. Each image is of a landscape, another world that is clearly fantastical in its heightened imagery, and yet it becomes our only brief opportunity to feign a break from the apartment, to seemingly escape. It's a much-needed breath of fresh air that further fortifies our connection to Anne, whose room contains the paintings.
Haneke's ability to constantly tighten our bonds to Anne and Georges, both separately and as a couple, is extraordinary. That the filmmaker also manages to leave us with many more question marks in the midst of this intimate approach is additionally impressive. Despite being stuck in the apartment for every moment after approximately the five-minute mark, we still miss a lot and are only privy to what Haneke wishes to show us. Some information is passed to us through conversations between Georges and his visiting daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert, another character we can connect to, but only within the apartment), although there remains an air of mystery that serves as a moving reminder that as close to these characters as we are, we remain voyeurs of an intensely personal family experience.
By putting us directly in the middle of that experience, Haneke ensures that our observational participation poignantly pulls us in every emotional direction afforded by the trio of significant characters. Georges falls apart as he loses his ability to handle the pain of watching his wife slowly succumb to the rigours of age. Eva faces the fear of losing both parents in different ways and tries desperately to seek a solution that could at least ease the tension. And then there's Anne, whose isolation begins in the apartment, then shrinks to her bed, and eventually leaves her a prisoner in her own body.
Many of Haneke's previous movies are ultimately about violence, be it societal, self-inflicted, psychopathic. At first, Amour seems to buck that trend until it slowly, methodically reveals that this is violence of the soul. Watching the physical collapse of Anne and the emotional collapse of Georges is more than a peek through the window of death; it's a specific chronicling of what two lovers can lose when they arrive at the end. This is Haneke, so of course it isn't pretty. And it's definitely not easy. The heart beats blackly here, a poetic pulse in the darkness.