There is no dignity in life. Everything we do is a futile attempt to avoid this knowledge. We dance, or listen to music, or get drunk or high because it makes us feel briefly immortal. We build monuments, give speeches, form governments, create rituals, profess faiths to convince ourselves something bigger exists. We stare at screens so we don’t have to look at reality. And we watch movies, those soothing two-hour daydreams in which the chaos of existence is beaten back, time and again, by purpose and resolution.
Illusions, every one of them. Despite our culture’s desperate insistence that youth can be found in the moment and that the moment can go on forever, we will all of us die. Worse, so will the people we love. How is it possible to know this and go on living, even for a day?
This is the subject of Michael Haneke’s deceptively quiet, devastatingly profound “Amour.” The Austrian writer-director (“Caché,” “The White Ribbon”) is an austere and perverse man: Where everything in our modern media omniverse conspires to help us ignore the awful truth, Haneke prefers to look it straight in the eye, without blinking. So “Amour,” winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes and now a contender for multiple Oscars including best picture, is a simple tale of an elderly French couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), and their experiences during the long, squalid months of Anne’s decline. Yet there’s a hard, hushed sanctity to the film that comes from the act of seeing, finally, without blinders on.
Georges and Anne are a dignified couple, both classical musicians, she a retired piano teacher. They live in a cluttered but orderly Paris apartment that is their world, as all the living spaces we each make for ourselves are our worlds. Early in the film, we see them attending a concert given by one of Anne’s former pupils; they return home flushed with ordinary contentment, frail but sophisticated. In the morning, Anne goes into a fugue state over breakfast — she stares into space without hearing or speaking for several minutes — and Georges is deeply rattled by this wrinkle in the routine.
Using long, slow camera shots, Haneke charts the stages of the wife’s physical deterioration, the film calmly skipping ahead a few weeks or a month to look in on the patient and her patient caregiver. After an unsuccessful operation followed by a stroke, Anne makes Georges promise never to put her in a hospital again, and what looks like cruelty to an outsider — including the couple’s brisk, concerned daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) — is to the husband merely the keeping of a vow. Among other things, “Amour” understands that what happens between two people is always its own universe, with its own language and rules.
The film records Anne’s passage from walking to wheelchair to motorized wheelchair to becoming permanently bedridden. It captures the unpretty details of caring for the infirm: feedings, bathings, firing careless nurses, tending to bedsores. “None of all that,” Georges coolly informs his daughter, “deserves to be seen.” Since Haneke obviously feels otherwise (at least this once), bearing witness becomes the movie’s working paradox. The two cling to their dignity — Anne turns away a gift from her former pupil because she doesn’t want his pity — but “Amour” finds a greater, more powerful nobility in their confrontation with the inevitable.
The movie avoids melodrama; instead, it’s just extraordinarily intimate, with touches of visual poetry like the pigeon that gets into the apartment and won’t leave, an image of our own heedless tenacity. We sense the long arc of a relationship here, its ending a painful reminder of its prime. The daughter tells her father of the comfort she took overhearing her parents’ lovemaking as a child; when Georges has to move Anne from her wheelchair to the bed, their tottering, dancing embrace is both a parody of their youthful passion and a summary of their lives. When Anne, her speech racked by a second stroke, asks her husband to pull down the photo album from its shelf, she flips through its pages with wonder, murmuring, “So beautiful. So long. Long life.”
If you’re someone who has dealt with the reality of a dying parent or spouse, “Amour” may seem both tough sledding and blessedly free of piety. If you’re too young, it’ll represent everything you don’t want to know. And if you’re a moviegoer of a certain generation, it may seem like the death of cinema itself. Trintignant and Riva are legendary icons of a pair of French films that were worldwide arthouse hits a half century ago. He starred in “A Man and a Woman” (1966), she was the lover in “Hiroshima Mon Amour” (1959), and both actors are now magnificent ruins through which we glimpse the glamour that once challenged and enchanted us. “Amour” is as much about the passing of a specific kind of movie experience, and the audiences who sustained it, as about this particular couple. It’s a testament to the fact that artistic movements die too, as well as the people who make them and consume them.
Still, Haneke keeps bringing us back to Georges and Anne in their spiky individuality. They’re not universal metaphors; they’re people. That’s what makes Anne’s humiliated pride so understandable and so moving: “Find yourself something to do; don’t stand there to see how I hold the book,” she snaps at her husband at one point. It’s what makes Georges’s actions late in the film comprehensible even as Haneke leaves the matter of judgment up to each of us watching.
Above all, “Amour” finds in its title the greatest mystery of human existence and the only saving grace before the lights go out. What happens between two people? Only the chemistry that keeps us from stumbling through the chaos by ourselves. Is that an illusion, too? “Amour” says it doesn’t much matter. There is no dignity in life except love.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.