You’re old, sick and bedridden. You’ve just suffered a stroke and lost most of your motor skills. Who will tend to your basic needs, brush your hair and see to it that you hold on to at least a semblance of personal dignity? Increasingly in the modern world, the answer to that is a professional caregiver. But in many instances family members will give themselves to the grueling and heartbreaking task of caring for the elderly, and they don’t have professional interest or compensation to balance the scale.
What’s the motivation if not love, and “Amour” plumbs the depths of these mysteries of the heart in a way that the conventional cinema love story, for all its emphasis on attaining the perfect relationship, can hardly hope to achieve.
Filmmaker Michael Haneke (“The Piano Teacher”) is a three-time winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or (most recently for “Amour”) and walked out of last week’s Academy Awards with the best foreign film Oscar, one of five for which “Amour” was nominated.
Working from an original screenplay, Haneke presents a story of love that is poignant yet chilly with clinical undertones and logical stoicism. You find yourself unable to look at the screen, wishing to escape somehow from a demonstration of love — amour — so lofty and pure it suffocates the senses like high mountain air.
“Amour” observes the lives of an 80-something couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, “Un Homme et une Femme”) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), unfolding in their compact but impeccably fitted-out Parisian apartment. The pair are retired music teachers, and they have reached a point of marital bliss that is probably the privilege of those who have striven to achieve and maintain that bliss their entire lives. (Interestingly, over five decades ago, Riva played another woman defined by love in 1956′s “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” — but in that, the discontent and pain of the relationship nearly destroyed her.)
Now Georges and Anne have no need of anyone, not even their only daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), herself a middle-aged musician living overseas. In an early scene the couple attend an evening concert where the pianist is Anne’s former pupil. In the morning they convene in their spotless kitchen to share a simple and elegant breakfast.
But the couple’s remarkably ordered and incredibly cultured universe shatters when Anne has a stroke and Georges takes it upon himself to care for her at home, even as his own health goes into sharp decline. Eva comes to visit and tries to talk her father into hiring help. “We’ve always coped, your mother and I,” he says to her. But his voice is full of fatigue.
Restrained and disciplined but always fragile with the emotional turmoil that roils just beneath the surface, “Amour” traces the quiet war between Georges and Anne’s slow, agonizing steps toward the end. And we realize that the tragedy drawn here isn’t really about growing old (though it’s tempting to believe so) but the possibility of never encountering the kind of love that will sustain us through that terrible but inevitable time.