The main narrative of Amour opens disconcertingly. Retired music teachers – M. and Mme. Laurent – return home after hearing a performance from their former pupil Alexandre. Upon arriving at the door, they discover that someone has tried to break into their home. This event unsettlingly foreshadows the impending visitor that likewise attempts to “break in” – it warns of the approach and arrival of death, impinging on the loving and beautiful world that the elderly couple share.
We are alerted of trouble very early on in the film. Anne and Georges Laurent sit at breakfast; all seems well until Anne suddenly goes quiet and a blank expression falls upon her face – she is silently suffering a stroke. The concerned Georges moves closer and closer to his wife, calling her name all the while, imploring her to tell him what is happening. He holds her face in his hands, and looks intently into her eyes, but no answer is, or indeed can be, given.
Although Anne does emerge from this catatonic state, a routine operation on a blocked carotid artery leaves her paralysed on her right side. Both we and the Laurents hope against hope that things may eventually turn for the better, but the situation worsens rapidly within a matter of months. A second stroke leaves Anne demented and incapable of expressing herself. When she does emerge lucid from time to time, it is often only to express the desire for her life to end.
It is the performances of Trintignant and Riva – harrowing, powerful and shatteringly intimate – that make Amour so deeply moving. Without an ounce of sentiment, Riva magnificently captures the torturous and heartbreaking journey of Anne – the story of this elegant, learned woman who is slowly reduced to a shadow, losing in turn every physical and mental faculty she had once possessed in abundance, losing finally the very will to live. In Trintignant’s Georges, we recognise the great suffering he himself endures as he watches the pain of his wife. We see also his ceaseless struggle to remain with her in every way, and his dejection as the precious windows in which they are able to communicate with each other grow fewer and farther between.
The last two scenes that the couple truly share together accurately encapsulate this situation. The first takes place in the evening, but the two are bathed in warm lamp light, and the atmosphere is one of easy tranquility. Anne reminisces of times past, talking – albeit with enormous difficulty – and sharing these memories once more with Georges. She rests her hand on his, and for a while she seems at peace. We will realise with great poignancy later that this was to be the last time they talk together. In the very next scene – perhaps the next day – we watch as Georges hears Anne’s painful and repeated call of a single word: ‘mal’ (hurt). Although the scene takes place in the same room, the colours become dull and lifeless. Now it is Georges who takes Anne’s hand, trying to soothe her with a story from his boyhood.
When Georges was a young boy, he was sent to a holiday camp by his parents. Before going, he had made a secret pact with his mother – if he was enjoying his stay, he was to draw flowers on the weekly postcard which he would send to her. If not, he would draw stars. One day, he wrote a postcard and covered it all in stars. He had caught diphtheria, and was rushed to hospital and sent into quarantine. When his mother arrived, she could neither comfort him nor truly be by his side; instead, she could only wave through a window. This sad tale from the distant past is an accurate reflection of the present state of affairs between Anne and Georges. Just like his mother with himself so many years ago, Georges can see his wife, but is unable to truly be with her.
At the start of the film, someone tries to break into the home of the Laurents – but without success. Even though death does enter their apartment, Amour does not end on a mournful note. Rather, the final scene we have of the two characters, whether it is a memory, an illusion, or a poetic truth, is a hopeful one. The apartment light is switched off and darkness dominates our screens, but Anne and Georges continue to look after each other with quiet devotion. Although they must venture out of their apartment or, metaphorically, into a life after death, their love allows them to journey together.