The Long, Slow Goodbye
Director’s relentless depiction of a husband caring for his declining wife feels palpably real
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva
Directed by: Michael Haneke
Stars: 4 out of 4
What a heartbreaking, beautiful love story.
We’re all going to die, and some of us will be lucky enough to grow old gracefully. But what happens when the gracefulness wears off? That question is at the center of the deeply beating heart of “Amour,” a touching, wonderful film that depicts a genuine love rarely seen on the big screen.
In France, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are a married couple in their 80s who are enjoying life together. They’re both retired music teachers, and Anne’s former pupil (Alexandre Tharaud) has gone on to great success. Then Anne has a stroke, and everything changes. She’s paralyzed on her right side and needs a wheelchair. We don’t see the stroke or any of the traumatic events that make her progressively worse, a wise decision by writer/director Michael Haneke, focusing on the love and care Georges shows for Anne, instead of needlessly showing histrionics.
We also never see them in a hospital, with a doctor or anywhere outside their apartment except during the film’s opening moments. Their pain is for them, not the world, to see. It’s as if Haneke wants the viewer to be a fly on the wall in the apartment, unobtrusive yet privy to the day-in, day-out difficulty that’s often overlooked for the more “dramatic” moments in movies. This is consistent with Haneke’s body of work: He is brutal and relentless in showing us things we don’t want to see (“Funny Games”) and fully capable of doing it in such a way that it resonates with profound emotion.
Watching Anne’s slow, steady decline is heartbreaking. There’s a moment when she gets out of bed to get a book from a nearby nightstand, but falls and can’t rise to stand. Another time, Georges tries to give her water, and she refuses to drink. Another, she wakes up wet, and Georges, without hesitation or judgment but only utmost love, cleans up after her like it’s not a big deal.
And as bad as it is for her, think about how torturous it is for Georges to watch the strong woman he’s loved most of his life not want to live anymore and be completely dependent on others. Trintignant gives Georges a steely exterior — we never see him cry, for example — but we do occasionally glimpse the anguish on his face that he’s otherwise suppressing. Riva similarly shows emotions on her face, but for an altogether different reason: She’s often lying in bed under blankets. Her optimism, as it turns to contentment, then frustration and then surrender to the inevitable feels palpably real. Trintignant and Riva, both in their 80s, are splendid and deserve every accolade they receive.
Georges and Anne do get a few visitors. The important one is their daughter, Eva, who means well but doesn’t understand the privacy her parents desire. How could she? To her, Mom should be getting help, exercise and therapy, and there has to be a way to make Mom better. Only Georges knows — and at one point bluntly tells Eva — that Mère isn’t going to get better, she’s only going to get progressively worse until she slips away. How awful to hear, and how worse to have to say.
If “Amour” doesn’t inspire you to think of friends and loved ones who’ve gone through something similar, nothing will. Death is inevitable for us all, and one supposes there’s no ideal way to die — but we can’t help fearing it will be this arduous and painful.