Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) have been married for a very long time, and they’ve both been retired for years now. They live together in a city apartment, because they enjoy doing cultural things, especially attending orchestra concerts, because they were once music teachers, and one of her pupils has become a star concert pianist, and they make a point to go hear him play.
Otherwise, they pretty much stay in their apartment. She fixes him a poached egg in the morning. They eat their meals together at the table, facing each other. If they even have a television, they rarely or never watch it. Occasionally they will listen to recordings of classical music, but not the radio. They read the newspaper together, and comment to each other, conversationally, on the bits of news they find there. They have a grown daughter, Eva, (Isabelle Huppert), who lives a good distance away, and she occasionally comes to visit, usually without her husband, and she tells them about her life, but they don’t seem to be frequent visitors in hers. They’ve known the landlord and his wife a long time, and are always cordial with them, but distant. They don’t seem to have any friends. They are perfectly content with each other’s company, and don’t seem to be alarmed at how isolated they have become.
One morning, at breakfast, she starts staring blankly into the distance, and doesn’t respond to his dialogue. Alarmed, he gets up to wipe her face with a wet towel, but she still just sits there, silent. But while he’s in the bedroom changing clothes in order to take her to the doctor, he hears her at the sink, and when he returns to the kitchen, she has no memory of her blackout, which alarms him even more. Soon the symptoms become more apparent: She can’t keep her hand still while pouring the tea; she has trouble putting her thoughts into words.
When they return from the doctor’s (all the staging takes place inside the apartment, like a play), they are both relieved to hear that though it’s blocked carotid arteries, this can be repaired. But the next scene is a visit from the daughter, where Dad explains to her that the operation was not a success. The 5 percent failure rate, it seems. Mom is not going to get better.
Now we painfully watch the slow decline. The first stroke results in a brief hospitalization, after which she begs him to promise that he will not take her back there. Reluctantly, he agrees. And he pays dearly for his loyalty to that solemn vow as her condition worsens. First a paralyzing stroke affects her right side; then she becomes increasingly unable to speak at all. He has to feed her, and lift her from the bed to try to bathe her, and take her to the bathroom. Exhausted, he tries to hire a home worker, and then another, but even that is fraught with difficulty: disappointed in their cavalier treatment of her, he dismisses them. You see, nobody loves her like he does.
And that, in the end, creates a wrenching dilemma, because he remembers how she’d told him, when she was first aware of her rapid decline, that she didn’t want to end like this. But what was he supposed to do? What’s the best way to show true love?
“Amour” will touch its viewers deeply, because it is so genuine, and because it’s so painfully real. True, American audiences will stay away in droves, because the film is subtitled, and the French actors are unknown in this country, and elderly besides. The pacing is so elegantly deliberate and the screenplay is so determinedly quiet and the character development so subtly incremental that even adventurous viewers will need patience. But the emotional impact is definitely delivered for those who choose to avail themselves of its nuances.
Ronald P. Salfen is the minister at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.