Perhaps we become aware of our age only at exceptional moments and most of the time we are ageless.

– Milan Kundera, L’Immortalité (1990)

Death is the only inevitability of our tenuous mortality. We attempt to prolong it by any means possible, a self-defeating exercise in futility. As we grow older, the need to reclaim our human dignity becomes of the utmost importance, and so becomes intertwined with our concept of death. How does one die with dignity? Can such a thing even be possible? Perhaps we die utterly alone, a prisoner within our self-constructed walls of skull and consciousness, waiting for the last breath and final reprieve. Perhaps cruelly, death can be the most ultimate form of intimacy, the final act of love. With stately and exacting precision, Michael Haneke allows us to witness this final chapter of a couple struggling with mortality and its consequences. It is a domestic tragedy, imbued not with bathos or theatrics, but with the emotional honesty and stark realism of facing mortality with quiet magnanimity.

The entire film takes place within the couple’s apartment, a study in light rooms and confined spaces – a fitting construct to the reality of one’s final days, claustrophobically contained within one’s very walls. Still shots of the elegant apartment, in hues of muted greys and the black of the grand piano, convey the calmness of life – or rather, perhaps, a premonition of what is to come. Haneke’s customary gaze is that of detached cerebrality, solemnly observing glimpses of Anne’s (Emmanuelle Riva) descent into senility, all the while making the viewer seem perverse for being allowed to witness it. The unsettling indicators that something is wrong affect one more greatly than any obvious exclamation of the fact – stolen glimpses of staring off into space, or lost moments of consciousness. Like Shakespeare’s Ages of Man, we witness Anne’s reversion from a serene and elegant woman to a condition of a defenseless child, simultaneously incomprehensible and frustrating for her husband Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant). At the beginning of the film, we see the couple’s life together: a night at the theatre, and retreating to a quiet night of comfortable domesticity borne of years of marriage. As Anne’s condition deteriorates, her identity follows, a loss achingly mirrored in Georges’ eyes. The effect of Anne’s illness hovers like an ominous spectre around the increasing fragility of the couple’s marriage, as their relationship turns from one of partnership and equality, to one of caretaker and charge, unflinchingly humiliating and helpless. Haneke’s masterful comprehension of humanity’s latent psychological disturbances are manifest in Georges’ surrealistic, almost Freudian dreams: he is as helpless in these dreams as he is to help his wife, and no degree of inane platitudes and offers of help can rectify the reality of the situation. This struggle is one between wife and husband barricaded in together alone, regarding any external input as intrusive and meaningless which would otherwise threaten to sever the fragile semblance of life to which they cling.

Haneke’s love of Viennese Romantic music is as much a part of the film as is the narrative. In La Pianiste, music is a symbol of power, an act of dominance and submission; the sombre solemnity of Schubert is magnificently juxtaposed with the film’s hypermasochism and cruelty. In Amour, music is the pinnacle of secular spirituality for the couple; the first scene in which the couple are attending a performance by one of Anne’s former pupils sets the tone for the role of music in their lives, as the camera is unwavering upon the faces of the audience as we hear the piano offscreen. As Anne’s condition deteriorates, we see that music – the very thing around which their lives revolved – becomes a painful reminder of a previous life: a visit from Anne’s former pupil is unsettling and awkward; Georges finds himself unable to complete a Bach chorale (the title of which is curiously “Ich bitte dich, Herr Jesu Christ“). In one of Anne’s final moments of lucidity, she asks her pupil to play Beethoven’s Bagatelles, op. 126, which was incidentally his final composition before death. Haneke’s films are very much in the milieu of concerning the religio-existential struggle of modern Europe, therefore considering music here as a surrogate for religious spirituality would not be amiss. Nevertheless, it is clear that music is sewn into the couple’s identity; Anne’s deterioration makes this relationship all too clear.

During the last several moments of the film, images of 18th-century paintings (among which, Corot) are displayed, depicting tapestrial provincial domesticity – an allegorical tribute to the perpetuity of art in the face of hardship? Fragments of culture; of music; of art; of being are ravaged of significance when coupled with the slow act of death and the deterioration of mind – the ultimate loss of self. Whatever the case, Haneke has no intentions of making a political statement, despite its (no doubt) controversial subject matter. Amour is an emotional yet unsentimental one about the burdens of our love and lives, and what – if anything – is left behind.