Spoiler: The old lady dies. Although he’s often described, sometimes even by his admirers, as a torturer of audiences, director Michael Haneke wants no surprises as to where Amour, the story of an elderly couple coping with one’s debilitating illness, is headed. Within a few minutes of the lights going down, we’ve seen Anne’s (Emmanuel Riva) stiffened corpse lying on a bed in the apartment she shares with husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), although the latter is nowhere to be found. Death is, after all, life’s one sure thing — no point in pretending it’s not coming for all of us. The manner of that death, and its preamble, is what’s left to fill in.
After its elegiac opening, Amour rewinds to a time just before Riva has what looks like a stroke, an event that transforms their relationship from loving companions to caretaker and patient. As Anne regresses into helplessness, Georges nurses her with fierce devotion. Their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) is rebuffed and professional help denied in favor of the most intimate kind of end. To use a word invariably associated with Haneke, there’s a certain coldness in the way he depicts the end of life, but it’s the coldness of a loving teacher, forcing us to gaze on what, if we’re lucky enough, will be our own end. (As Louis CK puts it, dying alongside someone you’ve loved for decades is the best-case scenario.)
There’s pathos mixed with panic in Riva’s performance, but Trintignant’s is in some ways the richer, combining immense tenderness with unbounded anger, parallel sentiments that eventually collide. Fair warning: Amour is not an easy movie to watch. But it’s a profoundly moving one and as close to uninflected sentiment as Haneke is ever likely to get. The underlying rigor of his more challenging films is still there, although Funny Games fans have predictably accused him of losing his edge. But instead of shoving us in the back, Haneke takes us by the hand, down a road we may not want to tread but have no choice.