Even though Amour has been released internationally under its French name, it is still a film titled Love. While many films often have the word ‘love’ in the title, few filmmakers are as bold (or perhaps foolish) to have that loaded word used as the title for their film. This is probably because most films about love are really about romance or other idealised variations about what love is. Few films really explore the question of what it means to love, not necessarily because of the complexity that is potentially involved, but because of the challenge required to express an understanding of love at its purest. Filmmaker Michael Haneke has approached the task by depicting the slow decline of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly woman living in Paris whose husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) looks after her as her body and then mind start to fail. The result is a triumph for Haneke and a deeply beautiful film.
As a filmmaker renowned for his ability to provoke, challenge and confront audiences with their own hypocrisy, Haneke may not seem like an obvious choice to make a film about love. However, he is perfect because of his ability to remove all traces of sentimentality and romantic notions of love that popular culture has trained audiences to believe in. So instead of young lovers discovering that they are one another’s soul mates, we see an elderly couple whose companionship has long moved on from the moment where most romance films end. Never before has Haneke’s highly formal and almost didactic approach to representing human behaviour so clearly expose him as a humanist at heart.
The film opens with Haneke asserting that the audience are voyeurs, witnesses to a private space and occupying an ethically ambiguous position. It is a favourite technique of Haneke’s and here it is established with a flashforward of the authorities bursting into Anne and Georges’s apartment; literally bursting into the space of the film in the very first frame. The film then goes back in time to show Anne and Georges enjoying a live music concert (we later learn the performer was once a student of Anne’s) before taking a train home together. As they enter their apartment they talk about somebody having broken in and how this concerns them. It is not only a typically Hanekesque moment for both recalling the flashforward and providing a narrative red herring, but it serves as a metaphor for the audience having ‘broken in’ to their lives. Later death becomes the intruder in their home. A pair of scenes involving a pigeon serves a similar purpose as it represents an unwanted visitor and also serves as a calculated distraction from other events. Eventually the pigeon exists to express the kindness that ultimately characterises the film.
Through all the difficult scenes of Anne’s decline and Georges’s frustration, kindness pervades. Even Haneke is kind towards the various supporting characters who commit acts of insensitivity to differing degrees; suggesting they have good intentions without full comprehension of the outcomes. For example, Anne’s former student Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud) unwittingly comes across as overly dramatic in how he expresses his sympathy, leaving Anne unable to listen to his music anymore. Likewise their daughter Eve (Isabelle Huppert) seems irrational compared to her parents, but Haneke shows us that she has not been able to get accustomed to what is happening to her mother due to other parts of her life demanding her attention.
Finally there is the kindness and affection between Anne and Georges that is initially shown through their daily domestic interaction and later through the scenes of Georges looking after Anne. Both of them struggle with the fact that what is happening to Anne is robbing her of her dignity. The way the pair attempts to make the situation more bearable for the other, often against the wishes of each other, is a significant part of what makes Amour a film of such integrity. The other strength is Haneke’s meticulous framing and camera position so that the camera only ever gets as close to the characters as it needs to, rather than opting for indulgent close-ups at every opportunity to elicit easy sentiment. Amour becomes the opposite of the film that Georges saw as a child and describes to Anne, which was manipulative and completely forgettable, but shamefully left him sad beyond belief afterwards without registering its power at the time. Amour is anything but manipulative or forgettable, but its emotional power is similarly not fully felt until the final credits are rolling.
Unlike the film Georges saw, Amour is not a film to feel ashamed about for having been moved by it. It is distinctively a Haneke film and yet its formal elements and moments of self-awareness seem designed to reward the viewer rather than punish them. By stripping back any aspects of film style or narrative that feel false or constructed, Haneke ensures that everything that happens between Anne and Georges is an act of intense kindness and personal sacrifice shared by people who love each other unconditionally. The scenario is upsetting, but the execution is genuine and pure, making Amour a film of heartbreaking beauty and Haneke’s masterpiece.