The dead body of music teacher and stroke patient Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) is one of the first images on screen in Michael Haneke’s new film, just before the simple black-and-white title card. She's dressed and groomed in her bed, sprinkled with flower petals by her husband of many decades, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). Is the juxtaposition of corpse and title a sign that even in death there is love? Or that not even love can save you from death? Missing from the shot of Anne's corpse is Georges himself. Where is he? Did he take his own life to save himself from years as a widower? It’s highly possible, based on the visual information you’re given, but with Haneke, you’re never fully sure.
Married music teachers in their eighties with a middle-aged daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), Georges and Anne live a quiet, retired life in a beautiful Paris apartment amidst art, music and books. But the gentle rhythm of their days is permanently interrupted when Anne suffers a mild stroke. As time passes, more episodes bring more damage – paralysis, loss of speech – until finally she's bedridden and slipping in and out of conscious function. With each step Georges comforts and tends to his beloved partner, refusing all assistance and firing nurses who won’t step up to his demanding level of attention.
In Haneke's 1997 film Funny Games, a pair of home intruders determined to destroy a vacationing family spend pointed moments in the action commenting on their horrific deeds and how films about the very thing they're doing are designed to provoke the "innocent" audience into wanting to commit murder themselves. Haneke indicts the audience for participating in the terror.
Early on here, another movie-commenting-on-movies moment occurs, as Georges tells Anne about a film he saw as a boy. It was an unremarkable, weepy romance, but one that still made him cry. Even telling other people about the film reduced him to tears. And almost immediately after that story is relayed, Haneke sets about reducing you to the same outcome, making you a participant in the couple's end-of-life suffering. If Funny Games was about random horror invading life from the outside, Amour is, on one level at least, about the inevitable horror that comes from within the body, the one nobody escapes.
It's also a story of deep devotion and care. Georges pushes himself to the limits of his capacity to do what nobody else will and winds up cocooning himself and his wife in their apartment, as though the shared construction of life they've built together will act as a fortress. The most gruesome moments, the markers of Anne's decline, are just out of the camera's reach. Time passes imperceptibly and every so often a new bit of disability announces itself, communicated solely through Riva's physically demanding performance. Difficult decisions become more urgent and the ultimate sorrow hovers over both actors, each delivering incredibly moving work.
And the cocoon keeps breaking as intrusions keep coming. A former piano student, now successful, arrives with too many questions. Daughter Eva insists on a variety of interventions and is repeatedly shut down. A pigeon keeps flying in through an open window, bringing chaotic wildness into the falsely constructed control of the apartment, as Haneke's camera stays still and distant from the most potentially histrionic elements of grief. He never pushes fear or sadness, affection or maudlin weepiness. He knows his audience will bring that to the film on their own; his restraint lets you fill in those moments with your own tears.