I realized about a quarter of the way into Amour that this was the wrong way to think about it. Haneke is renowned for his chilly, detached style and merciless lack of sentimentality in exploring the darker sides of human nature. Although his ruthless devotion to all things challenging and unsentimental is still evident in Amour, we must at least recognise that this represents some kind of turning point in Haneke's oeuvre.
Georges and Anne have been married many years, and have grown old together. They are both piano teachers, now retired. When we first meet them, they are attending a concert of one of Anne's old students, now grown and making a name for himself. They applaud, congratulate him and then take the bus home, smiling and talking to one another in snippets as they come closer to their apartment. If it hadn't been for a masterful, disquieting opening sequence (which I will not describe here), we would not suspect anything was wrong.
Yet after this wonderful outing, which they have obviously been looking forward to for a long time, their spacious Parisian apartment will become their entire world; we shall never leave it. There is a brief moment, masterfully shot, where the couple's adult daughter (in a beautiful performance from Isabelle Huppert, who played the self-harming protagonist in Haneke's formidable film, 'The Piano Teacher') stands by the window, and through the translucent material of the curtain we see the street outside and the vehicles moving slowly along it; the outside world remains completely impervious to the painful ordeal which is taking place on the other side of that curtain.
The ordeal begins one morning over the couple's breakfast. The two are having a conversation. Georges tells Anne something, and she suddenly becomes unresponsive. She snaps out of it, and she insists she has no memory of it; yet we sense in Anne, as Georges tells her about this strange event, a fear of something starting within her, of doctors and hospitals; there is even, glimpsed on her face for the briefest of moments, suspicion directed at her husband. It is the first event in a downward spiral, and from the moment Anne returns from the hospital afterwards, and a farce of a funeral that George is forced to attend alone, both will be condemned to this apartment. Anne begs Georges never to take her back to the hospital; thus, it becomes a prison and mausoleum; the sense of oncoming death pervades the coldly lit rooms.
Georges and Anne are played magnificently by those acting gods of yesteryear, Jean-Louis Trintignant (star of Bertolucci's masterpiece, The Conformist) and Emmanuelle Riva (the female protagonist of Resnais' Hiroshima Mon Amour). Hand-picked by Haneke himself, these two bring a lifetime of experience to their roles; their performances are breathtaking. Riva in particular, whose character loses her independence and her own sense of dignity increasingly throughout the film, is magnificent, not afraid of baring all to the camera. Anne's condition is not the ersatz tragedy, infused with humour and considerable taste, that Hollywood would have us believe; it is ugly, painful, degrading.
The claustrophobia of their lives, increasingly shut off from the rest of the world, is intense. Characters (including the couple's own daughter, selfish on the surface but nursing deep hurts) will come in and penetrate temporarily the organic, defensive webbing that Georges and Anne are now forming for themselves, but both the guest and the host feel that the couple's lives are being intruded upon. Theirs is a holistic, private world that outsiders try to break into; there is a great piece of symbolism, early on in the film, after Georges and Anne return from the concert, where they discover that someone has tried to break into their apartment. This couple, in the face of oncoming tragedy, hide within themselves and within this space, their own, where they have spent so many years and built their lives together.
I believe this to be the best film Haneke has ever made. Yes, it is gruellingly unsentimental, but unlike all of his other films, there is warmth, tenderness and genuine humanity to be found here. We are greeted by two highly intelligent people, who have been and remain deeply in love, and we are challenged now – not to watch the beginning of this relationship, but its end. Georges and Anne are not perfect human beings; they become frustrated, even angry. The wounds that each can inflict on the other, knowing each other inside out, hit the audience like a punch to the gut. It is part of the searing authenticity of the film, and that makes the more tender moments even more special.
Amour is a film about the disappearance of a human being; of what one man does in the face of losing the woman he has loved his whole life, every day, little by little. It is a psychological drama, tinged with philosophy and moments of exquisite, heartbreaking poetry. But it is also a luminous love story – one that is genuine and recognisable, between two characters that we fully believe in and sympathise with. Georges and Anne have spent many long, happy years together, and now, slowly and sadly, their happiness is coming to an end