Towards the end of Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winning Amour, George describes to his daughter the daily routine of caring for his dying wife, Anne. He recounts the decrepitude and dementia, incontinence and senility that defines their new domestic reality after Anne suffers a stroke, and concludes that “none of all that deserves to be shown.” Delivered with a tragic warmth quintessential of the recently-passed French film legend Jean-Louis Trintignant, the line encompasses the film’s self-conscious insistence upon active viewership as we become voyeurs to the intimate course of ageing and death. Amour not only presents a nuanced confrontation of human mortality, intimacy and loss, but renders visible the figure of the ageing woman in Anne, where within cultural production and the arts, according to Kathleen Woodward, “the older female body has been significant only in terms of its absence.” 

The film opens with firemen breaking into a beautiful Parisian apartment to find the corpse of an old woman carefully laid on the bed and ceremoniously surrounded by flowers. From there the plot jumps back in time, playing through an extended flashback of the preceding months. George and Anne, retired music teachers and long-married couple, return home from a piano concert to find their apartment has been burgled. This unwanted intrusion into the domestic sphere foreshadows the invasion of illness that follows. The film quietly moves through Anne’s steady demise in the manner of a chamber play, almost never departing from the four walls of their apartment. As illness turns to complete senescence, the emotional composition of the couple’s relationship transforms as the film explores the limits of love and protection of dignity, in sickness and in health.

Haneke explores the question, “How do I deal with the fact that someone I love is suffering?” with leads from French cinema royalty, Emmanuelle Riva and Trintignant (85 and 81, respectively, at the time of filming). The roles are played, as the director observed, by “two great actors who go beyond acting. They both knew that this situation will concern them in their own lives in the very near future.” Riva even decided to sleep on the set, an apartment meticulously constructed on a soundstage outside Paris, to avoid the long daily commute.

Amour broadly critiques the structures in Western capitalism that abandon those who cannot contribute to a labour-economy, creating an attitude of resistance towards ageing – most obvious in the bitter dispute between George and a nurse who treats Anne with a brutality only afforded to the disabled. Yet when Anne sits naked and wailing in the shower as she is scrubbed by another nurse, or when she recoils from her own face in the mirror, Haneke explicitly confronts us with the ostracism of the ageing woman. As Lynne Segal writes, “Women are not merely rendered invisible and marginalised on account of their age, but become inherently abject and the object of pity and scorn when their age becomes manifest.”

In a manner that defines the emotional extremity of Haneke’s cinema, Amour’s denouement leaves us with an entwining account of love and mortality. W. H. Auden wrote, “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me”: what shapes might loving take, as life approaches its conclusion? ◉

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