Director Michael Haneke has a reputation for making films that are a difficult watch and a bare description of his new one Amour doesn’t exactly make it sound appetising: set almost entirely in a Parisian apartment it’s an unflinching depiction of the gradual physical decline of a proud and intelligent eighty-something woman following two severe strokes and the distress and unwanted responsibilities this visits upon her devoted husband. Strangely though given the subject matter this would appear to be the work with which Haneke has turned a corner away from arbitrary cruelty and a pessimistic view of human nature and towards the possibility of redemption – you could still never accuse him of any kind of sentimentality, but these feel like real people with real inner lives and while they both have moments of weakness and anger the lasting bond between them is made very clear.
A piece this intimate is crucially dependent on its actors and thankfully veterans Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva are both utterly outstanding. Trintignant is on screen more or less throughout and carries most of the weight as the deeply concerned but always rational Georges, who copes with indignities such as learning how to change his wife’s diapers and having to fire unreliable nurses as well as he does with the strain of having to be constantly on call, while Riva’s skill at getting across the agony and frustration of someone whose basic physical and mental functions are being stolen from her one by one is extraordinary. She’s so good at playing disabled in the later scenes that sometimes it feels genuinely intrusive and exploitative to be watching her. Despite the hired help Georges is more or less on his own with the situation and is determined to respect his wife’s wish to remain at home for as long as he can, rejecting their daughter’s attempts to intervene as being mainly self-motivated. There’s not much mystery as to how a story like this is going to end, and in fact Haneke removes some of the suspense with a prologue showing the fire department breaking into the apartment, but the final sequences keep you watching nonetheless by bringing in a subtly spiritual undertow.
This is a long film and could easily have turned out to be unbearably grim but the clue to why it’s instead both enthralling and ultimately uplifting is in the title. This is as much the tenderest of love stories as it is a stark portrayal of the inevitable procession towards death and as such it’s a remarkable achievement.