In one of his stand-up routines, comedian Louis CK explains his pessimistic view of falling in love: no matter how nicely it begins, he explains, "it's going to lead to shit." You may have a couple of good dates, and then she'll stop calling you back. Or you'll date for a long time, and then someone will cheat. Or you'll get married, and it won't work out, and you'll get divorced. "Or," he says, "you'll meet the perfect person, who you love infinitely, and you even argue well, and you grow together, and you have children, and you grow old together—and then she's going to die. That's the best-case scenario: that you're going to lose your best friend…"
Like all the best comedy, it's funny because it's true: follow every love story to its logical conclusion, and no one gets a happy ending. This is why nearly every movie is careful to stop well before its characters reach that point, but Amour, the new film from Michael Haneke, begins there, chronicling an example of Louis CK's last, best-case scenario with unremitting precision and unflinching honesty. It should come as no surprise that the provocative director of Funny Games has delivered a film that is, at times, as harrowing as any horror film. What is remarkable is that Amour earns every emotional beat, and—without a single false step or the faintest patina of sentimentality—reminds us that each difficult moment in this end-of-life tale is the culmination, and celebration, of a long and passionate affair. Simple, succinct, and devastating, Amour is a masterpiece of filmmaking and—as its title suggests—a beautiful and haunting treatise on the nature of love.
Legendary French actors Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman) and Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima, Mon Amour) play Georges and Anne, an elderly married couple living in Paris. Both former music teachers, Georges and Anne seem to be enjoying the kind of quiet, cultured existence that many of us would hope for in our retirement. They live in one of those gloriously cluttered apartments that feels like the manifestation of its occupants' souls: one packed to the rafters with books and music and art, where the very scratches in the woodwork seem to testify to decades of a life well spent. On the night we meet them they are attending the concert of one of Anne's former pupils (played by real-life piano virtuoso Alexandre Tharaud), who greets them warmly and credits Anne with his success. At breakfast the next morning, we witness their simple routines, and overhear their kind, banal conversation; without any more exposition we already feel as if we know these people, who have spent more years together than many of us have been alive.
Haneke provides just the perfect amount of detail to allow us to infer everything that we need to know about Georges and Anne's life, before that life—as they have known it—ends in an instant. It happens, fittingly, in the middle of the kind of typical, telling moment that will be recognizable to any long-term couple. "The salt-cellar is empty," Georges announces irritably, and looks at Anne as though it's her responsibility to solve this problem—but she just stares at him and says nothing. Accepting the gentle reproach, he gets up to fill the salt shaker himself, chattering away while he does this—but when he returns to the table he realizes that Anne is still sitting and staring blankly ahead. She isn't ignoring him: she is, for several long, terrifying moments, simply gone.
This brief fugue state—which we will learn was a stroke—is the first evidence of a shattering fissure in their life that will only grow wider. Anne emerges from it perfectly lucid—and unaware that anything odd has happened at all—but then suddenly it is several months later, and Georges is explaining to his self-involved, slightly estranged daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) that her mother's surgery has not gone well. (Haneke's film leaps forward in this way several times, jumping without transition to each devastating stage in Anne's deterioration so that it can stop and focus, in relentless, fantastically precise detail, on what living in each new phase means.)
Returning from the hospital, partially paralysed but still—for the moment—in possession of her faculties, Anne solicits a promise from Georges: no more hospitals. Georges—who is, after all, not a young man himself, and moves slowly and with difficulty even in crisis—agrees: Anne will have regular visits from a doctor (whom, cleverly, we never see), and eventually Georges will break down and hire some nurses to assist him, but otherwise Georges and Anne will spend this phase of their life in the same apartment where they have lived the rest of it. "We have always coped, your mother and I," Georges tells his daughter, and so Amour becomes a stunningly intimate two-handed play, as he attempts to not only see her through the end of her life but also protect her from the shame and interference of well-meaning outsiders. "Your concern is of no use to me," he tells Eva: like many moments in Amour, this one is jarring in its frankness and precision: this, Georges is saying, is between me and my wife, and no one else.
Trintignant and Riva have, between them, more than a century of film experience, and the lives they have lived on celluloid inform and deepen our investment in the long love affair of their characters here: as Georges watches his wife fade away from him, we can see her as he does: as not only the lovely old woman she has become but also the stunningly beautiful young woman he fell in love with so many years ago.
Even without the enrichment of this cinematic subtext, however, these are two of the most exquisite performances of this or any other year. Riva has the more physically demanding part, and delivers with heartbreaking candor the frustration, humiliation, and despair of this strong, dignified woman reduced to a second infancy of mental and physical ruin. But the film rests squarely on Trintignant, who carries it with the same quiet grace and strength as his character shoulders the burden of his wife's sickness. There is nothing showy about his performance, as there is nothing self-consciously noble or self-sacrificing about his flawed character's commitment to his wife: this is simply the way things are, the way they must be, and we see him graciously accept the realities and responsibilities of the situation. There will be occasional, fleeting moments of humor and connection—one such gesture late in the film, from Anne, should wreck any viewer who isn't already emotionally devastated—but the fact is that every day he spends with the love of his life will, from now on, be worse than the one before.
Amour is, as I've said, a love story, but it is the classic example of the storyteller's creed that you should show, not tell: we learn little of Georges and Anne's life before this crisis, hear only fleeting tidbits about their courtship and marriage, and discover no revelations about their relationship with their daughter: none of that matters, in a film that lives, as Georges and Anne must, entirely in the present, in the day-to-day reality of a life that is drawing, rapidly, to a close. We do not get comforting palliatives, see emotional catharses, or hear flowery protestations of love: these, too, would be unnecessary and false. What we get instead is an honest, unblinking look at the end of a marriage that stands, without adornment or sentimentality, as a heartbreaking portrait of what it truly means to share a life.
With a spare, ruthlessly precise screenplay, powerful and devastating performances, and a rigorous, uncompromising eye, Amour is a nearly flawless piece of filmmaking. Michael Haneke is known for delivering difficult, emotionally unsettling films, and Amour is no different, as we are watching two good people go, step by inevitable step, through the worst thing they will ever endure. The fact that they endure it together, however—with wisdom and kindness and grace—makes every harrowing moment somehow tender and edifying. Georges and Anne's commitment to one another makes Amour one of the greatest love stories ever told on film, and Haneke's unwavering commitment to truth makes it a masterpiece.