Even with a title like Amour (Love), you can expect that Michael Haneke has a divisive trick up his sleeve. Yet the famously antagonizing writer-director — known in part for offering his Funny Games in two languages, presumably in order to bait the maximum hatred — has made his most tender film to date: a story about an active, sharp-minded elderly couple whose lives are upended when one of them falls ill.
It's the morning after Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) attended a concert of one of her now-famous former students when disaster strikes. Though it strikes quietly. They are simply chatting at breakfast when, suddenly, Anne checks out. She goes blank, not responding to questions or a cool cloth on her face. Georges starts getting dressed to go get help when Anne comes to again, though she has no memory of what happened.
"Are you mad?" he asks her. "Is this a prank?" No, it isn't. It was a stroke, and an unsuccessful operation to unblock an artery leaves her partially paralyzed.
At first, Anne's mind is still there, though she needs help with everything from using the bathroom to getting in and out of bed. She asks Georges to promise that he'll never send her to a hospital. But then things start to deteriorate, and Anne knows it, telling Georges that she wishes to end her life because things will only get worse. Naturally, he recoils at the thought, and continues to care for her, though her condition does worsen, and rapidly.
Soon she can barely speak and talks only gibberish when she does, refuses to drink, and essentially becomes a vegetable. The couple's daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), is horrified at how matter-of-factly, and, arguably coldly, her father handles things, becoming irate when she tries to bring up alternate care and even telling her, "I don't have time for your concern."
Amour is an unblinking look at the pressures of being a caregiver, especially an unexpected one, as well as the heartbreaking realities the infirm elderly face as they near death. Georges has to learn how to bathe Anne, how to change her diapers, how to respond when she's not talking sense. Dignity, or indignity, as the case may be, is a prominent theme, too.
Who in their right mind would want to go on living as Anne does? The worst part, perhaps, is that she foresaw this happening, yet Georges dismissed her wish to die on her terms. When do you let go, especially when there's an ever-so-slight promise that the person might recover?
Trintignant and Riva are tremendous in their roles, even if you come to hate Georges for his harshness with his perpetually tearful daughter. (Huppert's part is small but affecting.) The nearly 86-year-old Riva, however, is gathering all the accolades for her portrayal of a woman who, once vibrant, suddenly speeds toward death.
Neither Haneke nor Riva do anything to soften Anne's state, and much of the film is difficult to watch. An unexpected turn of events in the last chapter will be understood by some but despised by many. And thus Haneke leaves his imprint on this love story that could have easily become a melodramatic yawn.