Those familiar with Michael Haneke's films realized that when he made a movie called Amour, it wouldn't be an ordinary love story. What we see (in all of its horror) is the final stage of a successful love story, the end of the line.
It's a destination that we all think of as tender and romantic, mainly because no one seriously thinks through what it actually encompasses. From the 1996 book Taxi Driver Wisdom, a received idea from a cabby: "When you marry someone, it's a way of saying, 'I will be ready to bury this person.'"
The opening: doors thrown open on an apartment where an elderly woman's flower-bedecked corpse is discovered in a gas-filled room by a squad of Parisian firemen and paramedics.
We flash back to the events leading up to this moment. Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, in his first film in nine years) are an elderly couple with a great love of classical music, relaxing in an apartment furnished with books, paintings and a grand piano. They discuss some of the usual pressures: familiar unhappiness, mainly, since their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) is involved with a two-timing British husband.
One morning during coffee, Anne stops her in tracks, dumbstruck. She's lost a minute of her life to a stroke; this incident is followed by complications from surgery to relieve the damage. Then comes another stroke, paralysis and irreversible decline.
Anne was a correct Parisian woman with a horror of being useless or dependent, let alone ugly. Georges' particular aversion is to melodrama or tears. And with Trintignant's Olivier-like skill, we see the dichotomy of how a man may be deeply devoted to his wife and still be a rather cold bastard.
I liked the scene of the escalation of a fight with a nurse Georges is firing, with neither one wanting to back down. The nurse tells him to go fuck himself. That doesn't make him flinch. What makes him flinch is when she slams the door on the way out: the door to the apartment counts as one of his possessions.
The scene rhymes with the worried, old-people-style fussing about burglars. That's Haneke's bleak sense of humor; we worry about thieves, we worry about invaders (if there's such a thing as poetry to home invasion, Haneke sought it in his two equally unwatchable versions of Funny Games). The joke is that we have no idea what can be stolen from us at any moment.
Amour's perfection lies in its clinical refusal to euphemize. That's visible in the way the camera is positioned right at the foot of Anne's bed, as if standing in the place of someone who didn't know the sick woman all that well, who can neither politely leave the room nor sit down close to her pillow like a daughter.
The film has the 3am clarity of a fantasy of downfall, unredeemed by false uplift and spiritual afflatus about the satisfaction of dying in your own bed. (They take your bed, anyway, and replace it with one of those hospital models.) The beauty and spirituality that's said to be waiting at the end of life may just be something else that keeps people pliable—all of it just mystification, which Haneke proposes to strip away.
You could claim, and it has been claimed, that Haneke is addicted to cruelty, because of his desire to get it right, to tell this story of desperation and love with as little skirting reality as possible. (Amour has humor, though, with incidents of Georges trying to retrieve a pigeon that keeps sneaking through a window. "Hope, the thing with feathers," you could say.)
The other criticism: Why watch Amour if you've seen people going through it like this? Answer: People go through it in a lot of different ways. If it offers redemption, it's in the hope there's a balance—the way we failed people we loved who were dying might be redeemed by the way we'll be failed when we die some day.
127 MIN PG-13