When my wife and I got married, I gave a toast where I laid out all I wanted for us: A long, healthy, happy life. Not great riches, not great success—just a fulfilling marriage that would sustain us both for the rest of our lives. So far, we've been lucky, and I'm grateful for that, but as anyone who has watched as his grandparents and parents have gotten older and been struck down by different illnesses or medical conditions knows, eventually the unimaginable enters the picture. It's a horrible thought, which is why nobody ever wants to mention it, but, deep down, we know death waits for no one.
The drama Amour, which opens December 19 in limited release, tackles this reality head-on. Such a film ought to be unbearable. But in the hands of Michael Haneke, Amour's Austrian director, it's a poignant and beautiful experience. This may surprise those who have seen Haneke's other films. From Cache to The White Ribbon to Time of the Wolf to Funny Games (both the original and the U.S. remake), Haneke's films have displayed a bleak view of humanity. Amour is hardly touchy-feely, but it's compassionate in a way a lot of his earlier movies aren't. That hardly means this movie isn't bleak in its own way.
The film stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as Georges and Anne, a married couple in their 80s living in Paris. They used to be music teachers, and they still go out to the occasional concert for one of their students, but on the whole they're a rather unremarkable couple—warm and loving, the lucky ones who have lived long, happy lives. And then one morning Anne starts acting weird, which prompts a trip to the doctor. And then things get worse from there.
It might seem strange to worry about plot spoilers in a movie like this, but part of what makes Amour such a gripping film is how it puts us into Georges' frame of mind, watching as his wife suffers one bit of bad news, tries to rally, and then experiences a setback. Haneke doesn't map out Anne's deterioration like a straight line plummeting downward. As anyone who's been through a similar situation knows—and Haneke has—the most maddening element of a loved one's declining health is that there's no rhyme or reason to it. On some days, Anne seems very much fine. Other days, something troubling happens, signaling further problems. There's no reliable arc, except for a general sense that the current situation is as good as it's going to be—it will only get worse from here. You just don't know when.
Amour is hardly the first film to focus on a couple torn apart by illness. These sorts of movies run the gamut from Dying Young to Away From Her, but most of the time they're built around some feel-good message or other positive takeaway that allows the audience to feel justified in going on such a harrowing ride. That doesn't happen in Amour—neither Georges nor Anne "changes" because of this ordeal, and we don't leave the theater touched by some inspirational message about the miracle and mystery of life.
It's in this regard that you can peg Amout as a Haneke film. But whereas in the past his films' awful deeds were directed at morally slippery or privileged individuals—people who perhaps "deserved" a comeuppance—the characters in Amour, though well-off and cultured, haven't done anything to merit such misery. And that's part of Haneke's point. Whether you were a selfless humanitarian or a real bastard, death is going to find you. All we can hope for in that moment is to embrace it with some kind of grace and the support of those who love us.
Trintignant and Riva are both terrific, effortlessly embodying the contours of a long, loving relationship, which is important since we don't learn a lot about these characters. Most of Amour is confined to the couple's apartment, and there's a sense of claustrophobia that runs throughout the film, which is occasionally broken up by the presence of their less-than-pleasant daughter Eve (Isabelle Huppert) and a few others. Because of the film's restricted setting, it's tempting to see Amour as apocalyptic, Georges and Anne boarded in their home trying to keep the monsters away. (An early scene involving a break-in foreshadows that terror.) In a way, all of Haneke's films have been about the end of the world, although only Time of the Wolf is literally set in a post-apocalyptic landscape. But in its quiet, ambiguous way, Amour builds to its own sort of reckoning, one that asks fundamental questions about love and death, questions without answers. I suppose Georges and Anne are lucky—they got their long, healthy, happy life. But at the film's end, I wasn't sure if even that was enough. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to try to stop thinking about that means for any of us.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.