Dir. Michael Haneke
(2012, PG-13, 127 minutes)

I have seen Michael Haneke‘s last three films, and they left me with mixed feelings about the Austrian director. I was absorbed by Cache (Hidden), though would be hard-pressed to explain its meaning. I found The White Ribbon cold and overlong. His English-language Funny Games was vile; it was remade from an earlier German version I have no desire to sit through.

Part of my problem with those previous films is that he is merciless in his technique but also generally heartless in his storytelling. What makes his latest film, Amour, as outstanding as it is is that he is once again merciless, but this time he is also full of compassion. Because he pulls no punches, it’s an emotionally grueling film to watch, but it is also deeply rewarding.

The subject of the film is the marriage of two octogenarians: retired piano teachers Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, in courageous performances), who live contentedly in their French apartment until one day Anne suffers what seems to be a stroke. Its effects appear minor at first – she stares into space, doesn’t respond when spoken to – but eventually she is paralyzed on one side of her body and needs help to move, use the bathroom, get into and out of bed. She feels great shame at the loss of her autonomy, but the worst is yet to come.

The slow deterioration of her health is a process shown in agonizing detail by Haneke, who paces the film slowly, using many long, still shots that observe the difficulty of basic functions, but these scenes of Anne and Georges have a dual purpose: to show us her declining health, but also his devotion. The latter is demonstrated not through grand gestures, but subtle, instinctive acts of tenderness, from flexing her leg for exercise to caressing her hand at moments of distress.

Haneke is attentive to the minute details of their lives, so that this small but pivotal cross-section of their marriage fully illuminates the whole of their relationship, and the impression it leaves is both devastating and uplifting. The title of the film is as ambitious as it is simple. Haneke has undertaken to show us love, and by the end of this film, he has done no less than define it.