When we first meet Anne, she’s dead. As Michael Haneke’s Amour opens, we watch burly public health officials break into a Paris apartment where they discover a body, wreathed with flowers. Immediately we dive into a film-length flashback. But there is never any suspense as to where the story will end: the same place all human stories end.
As the flashback begins, we see Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) in hale old age, seated in a packed theatre audience, as viewed from the front. They gaze at us. We gaze at them. Then a pianist starts playing: we still see only the audience, not the stage, but now we know they’re at a recital, not a film. The mirror shatters. But we’ve seen ourselves reflected in it.
The next morning an odd health glitch sends Anne to the doctor, and we find ourselves following her and Georges over the edge of the abyss. It’s clear very quickly that her decline will be final, and mercilessly slow. She begs Georges not to hospitalise her. He gives his word. Quietly, respectfully, the film shows us the protracted end of their life together.
“Respectfully” is the right word, but also the wrong one. There is nothing tame or mealy-mouthed about Haneke’s screenplay or direction. There’s a scene in which Georges hears a crash from the far end of the apartment: has Anne fallen?
He walks as quickly as he can to help her, and the camera follows. His speed is very slightly greater than his normal walking pace, and the corridor feels very long as we make our way down it in his wake. He’s old. If he pushes too hard and falls, there’s no one to come and help him. The disciplined urgency of this moment typifies the film. It never rushes. It never feels slow. There’s a passionate restraint to every move it makes.
I want to say that Trintignant and Riva are beyond praise, because I have difficulty thinking of the right words to praise them. Amour dramatises a universal human reality, but this is only possible through telling a specific story about specific people: as it happens, rather well-to-do, highly educated people.
A scene in which Georges is forced to fire a casually cruel nurse has an appalling starkness to it, but it also has a tincture of schadenfreude: we’ve seen how awful this woman is, and now we get to hear Georges voicing our disapproval. Because he’s someone who can. It doesn’t represent any universal reality that he has the wealth to hire a nurse and the fortitude to face down a younger, fiercely angry person when it needs to be done. It just represents Georges.
The point being that Trintignant and Riva bring an intensity and richness of emotion to their characters that makes you feel you know them. You sense their lives streaming back behind them through time, decades deep.
This is not just a study of a death, it’s a study of the private world the death is going to end: that’s why it has weight, and also why it has the right title. (It could, after all, have been called Mort.) It’s a formally perfect masterpiece built around two achingly raw performances. See it at all costs, and – seriously – make sure you take someone to hug afterwards.
OPENS FEBRUARY 28
AMOUR, directed by Michael Haneke
Films are rated out of 5: 1 = abysmal; 5 = amazing