Even though Michael Haneke’s latest filmis innocuously titled Amour, you can imagine that the director has a divisive trick up his sleeve. Yet the famously antagonizing filmmaker—he offered his sadistic Funny Games in two languages, presumably in order to incite maximum hatred—has made his most tender film to date, a story about an active, sharp-minded elderly couple whose lives are upended when one of them falls ill.
When disaster strikes, it’s the morning after Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) attend a concert of one of her now-famous former students. It strikes quietly: They are chatting at breakfast when, suddenly, Anne checks out. She goes blank, not responding to questions or a cool cloth on her face. Georges starts getting dressed to go get help when Anne comes to again, though she has no memory of what happened. “Are you mad?” he asks her. “Is this a prank?” No, it isn’t—it was a stroke, and an unsuccessful operation to unblock an artery leaves her partially paralyzed.
At first, Anne’s mind is still there, though she needs help with everything from using the bathroom to getting in and out of bed. She asks Georges to promise that he’ll never send her to a hospital. But then things start to deteriorate, and Anne knows it. She tells Georges that she wishes to end her life because things will only get worse. He recoils at the thought and continues to care for her, though her condition does worsen, and rapidly—soon she can barely speak and talks only gibberish when she does, refuses to drink, and essentially becomes a vegetable. The couple’s daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), is horrified at how matter-of-factly—and, arguably, coldly—her father is handling things, becoming irate when she tries to bring up alternate care and even telling her, “I don’t have time for your concern.”
Amour is an unblinking look at the pressures of being a caregiver, especially an unexpected one, as well as the heartbreaking realities the infirm elderly face as they near death. Georges has to learn how to bathe Anne, how to change her diapers, how to respond when she’s not talking sense. Dignity—or indignity, as the case may be—is a prominent theme, too: Who in their right mind would want to go on living as Anne does? The worst part, perhaps, is that she foresaw this happening, yet Georges dismissed her wish to die on her terms. When do you let go, especially when there’s an ever-so-slight possibility that your loved one might recover?
Trintignant and Riva are tremendous in their roles, even if you come to hate Georges for his harshness with his perpetually tearful daughter. (Huppert’s part is small but affecting.) The nearly 86-year-old Riva, however, has rightfully gathered accolades for her portrayal of a woman who, once vibrant, suddenly speeds toward death. Haneke and Riva do nothing to soften Anne’s state, and much of the film is difficult to watch. An unexpected turn of events in the last chapter will be understood by some but despised by many, and the finale is left open-ended. And thus Haneke leaves his imprint on this love story that could have easily become a melodramatic yawn.