Nominated for five Academy Awards, Amour is a film about love and death. (Read no further if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know who dies and how.) The setting is Paris, the language French, but any resemblance to a conventional French film about light-hearted romance or a ménage a trois ends there.
The married lovers in the film are in their 80s, as are the main actors (Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant). Anne is a retired piano teacher; Georges is retired as well (not clear whether he was also a piano teacher or a musicologist). Their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is a musician.
Amour was directed by Michael Haneke, an Austrian filmmaker whose previous films were, to put it mildly, grim. “The White Ribbon” portrays the abuse and humiliation of children and women in a small German town just before World War I. “The Piano Teacher” is an abusive and self-mutilating woman. “Funny Games” features sadistic serial killers. So it would be unrealistic to expect “Amour” to be cheerful or sentimental in its treatment of old age and illness.
His penchant for violence aside, Haneke is a skilled filmmaker, and this long (very long) film is carefully constructed to achieve an effect. Exactly what effect he had in mind is still unclear to me, and I would have to see the film again (which I have no intention of doing) to figure this out.
The opening scene of firemen breaking down the door to Anne’s and Georges’s apartment and then holding their noses because of the smell sets the stage. Anne’s corpse, carefully arranged with flowers at her head, is our first image of her. The film then shifts to a concert hall, where the audience, including Anne and Georges, stares at us – the movie theater audience – for a long (very long) time before the pianist, who we find out is Anne’s former student, begins to play. Are we meant to be a little uneasy right from the start?
The couple’s comfortable retirement is abruptly interrupted when Anne has a sudden episode of blanking out. An operation to clear a blocked carotid artery is unsuccessful and she comes home in a wheelchair to be cared for by Georges. Haneke shows the daily routines of caregiving for a partially paralyzed person—bathing, going to the toilet, incontinence, feeding, and range-of-motion exercises. In documenting Anne’s decline, he dwells, almost lovingly, on the ravages to her body and mind. It is a realistic glimpse of the gritty side of caregiving, yet these scenes also turn us into unwitting voyeurs, invaders of Anne’s carefully protected privacy.
At some point in the film the story shifts to Georges. He wants to take care of Anne on his own, but he finally hires nurses for shifts three times a week. (Although the film credits list these roles as l’infirmieres –nurses – they seem more like home care aides, assisting with personal care, not skilled nursing care.) He fires one after she mistreats Anne in some way.
There is no indication of the passing of time in the film. We don’t know whether the illness trajectory is happening over weeks or months. The toll caregiving takes on Georges begins to show in his stooped posture, shuffling walk, and defeated look. He resists Eva’s ineffectual efforts to help and goes so far as to lock Anne’s door when Eva visits. In one scene a pigeon flies into an open window, and Georges chases and finally shoos it out the window.
In his first act of violence, Georges slaps Anne in frustration after she spits her drink in his face. Anne moans in pain (psychic or physical?) until Georges calms her with a story from his childhood. And then, he takes a great big pillow and suffocates her. The scene is predictable but shocking nonetheless. She takes a long (very long) time to die, her leg rising and falling in an odd reminder of the range-of-motion exercise we saw earlier. Her body resists what she has said she wanted to happen.
Georges buys the flowers we saw around Anne’s corpse at the beginning. He catches a second pigeon that has flown in the window, covers it in a blanket, closes the window. He seems to caress the pigeon. He writes a note about letting the pigeon go (but we only see him let the first pigeon go). And then in a dream sequence he and Anne leave the apartment. In the final scene Eva returns alone to the empty apartment and looks squarely at us.
Apart from the exceptional performances of all three leads, what can be said about this film? It is certainly a love story, but a very claustrophobic and exclusive kind of love. There is no room in this couple’s relationship for other people, even their own daughter. Eva seems self-absorbed but neither of her parents express any real interest in her or their grandchildren. Their conversations are the kind that might occur between acquaintances, not close family members. At one point, Eva tells her father she is concerned about him, and he responds, “Your concern is no use to me.” He treats her dismissively, even cruelly. And Anne does not want her daughter to see her in her debilitated state.
If there is no room for Eva, there is even less room for health care professionals. Dr. Bertier, the family doctor, never appears and does not seem to be involved beyond the operation. Once discharged from the hospital, Anne makes Georges promise that she will never go back. She does not want further medical treatment. But in a country with universal health care coverage, there is no indication of home care support other than the aides Georges hires on his own. Hospice or home care with adequate pain and symptom control might have made a difference, although not as dramatic a story. I leave it to clinicians to suggest what interventions might make someone like Georges more responsive to assistance.
And finally what are we supposed to think about Georges’ killing of Anne? She was clearly at the end of life and he was at the end of his ability to cope. Was suffocating her an act of compassion or an act of desperation or possibly both? Whose suffering was greater? What happened to Georges? I think we are meant to understand that he killed himself, after he killed Anne and (maybe) the second pigeon. He certainly disappears from the film.
Perhaps Haneke meant for the audience to ask themselves, Could I kill someone I love to end that person’s suffering and mine as well? Would I want someone to do this to me? Anyone who has seen a family member or friend suffer at the end of life has undoubtedly asked themselves these questions. And many people will see Georges’ act as a final act of love. But saying that you would end someone’s life, violently if that were the only option, is quite different from actually doing it. Most people would stop short. I think that is a good thing.
Amour ends and the credits roll. The audience goes home. Maybe they talk about the film, maybe they argue about it. Some say that if Anne were the caregiver, she would never have killed Georges. Some say physician-assisted death is the answer. Some protest that this would not have helped Anne in her demented state. Some appeal to religious or humanistic principles. Some say, “What was up with the pigeons?” Some say, “Come on, it’s just a movie!” Then they move on with their lives, putting aside unpleasant thoughts about illness and death.
If there is a message in this film, let it be that no one should face devastating illness — their own or another person’s — alone.
Carol Levine, 78, is director of the Families and Health Care Project of the United Hospital Fund. She was awarded a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship in 1993 for her work in AIDS policy and ethics. This piece originally appeared on the blog of the Collaborative Family Healthcare Association