Those familiar with Michael Haneke's films realized that when he made a movie called Amour, it wouldn't be an ordinary love story. What we see, in all of its horror, is the final stage of a successful love story, the end of the line. The film opens with doors thrown open on an apartment where an elderly woman's flower-bedecked corpse is discovered in a gas-filled room by paramedics.
We flash back to the events leading up to this moment. Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, in his first film in nine years) are an elderly couple with a great love of classical music, relaxing in an apartment furnished with books, paintings and a grand piano. They discuss some of the usual pressures—familiar unhappiness, mainly, since their daughter (Isabelle Huppert) is involved with a two-timing British husband.
One morning during coffee, Anne stops in her tracks, dumbstruck. She's lost a minute of her life to a stroke; this incident is followed by complications from surgery to relieve the damage. Then comes another stroke, paralysis and irreversible decline.
Amour's perfection lies in its clinical refusal to euphemize. That's visible in the way the camera is positioned right at the foot of Anne's bed, as if standing in the place of someone who didn't know the sick woman all that well, who can neither politely leave the room nor sit down close to her pillow like a daughter.
The film has the 3am clarity of a fantasy of downfall, unredeemed by false uplift and spiritual afflatus about the satisfaction of dying in your own bed. (They take your bed, anyway, and replace it with one of those hospital models.) The beauty that's said to be waiting at the end of life may just be something else that keeps people pliable—all of it just mystification, which Haneke proposes to strip away.
'Amour' opens Friday, Jan. 18 at the Rafael Film Center.