Watch a scene from Michael Haneke's film Amour featuring Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant.
Film scores are, by and large, manipulative. They do their work at the periphery of the senses, signaling danger, heralding victory, prodding us toward fear and joy in time with the unfolding story. Crucially, they are also empathic, letting us in on what the actors' words or faces may not convey. And when things get unpleasant, the score can step in as an emotional buffer — a layer of unreality between us and the action that lets us know we're safe. Sunday night at the Oscars, Hollywood will honor a film whose music manages to get all these things right.
Amour, Michael Haneke's film about love tested by the extremities of age, is not among the nominees for best score. In fact, it does not have a score at all. Instead, the music of Amour arrives from within the world of the story, audible to the people onscreen — what film scholars refer to as "diegetic" sound. Those moments are few and fleeting, only a few minutes in total. But by their very scarcity, they pack a punch — and in their own way, give us clues to what the characters are really feeling.
We begin in a concert hall. We don't see who's performing, only who's watching: a well-groomed crowd of concertgoers young and old, on whom the camera stays fixed even as the lights go down and the music begins. Among them, we will learn, are Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), retired music teachers here to support an old pupil who's become a famous pianist. We follow the couple out of the theater, home to their Paris apartment, and to their kitchen table the next morning — where Anne has an attack, the result of a blocked artery, and the story is set in motion.
We will spend the duration of the film in their home, shut away from the world, watching as Anne's health worsens and Georges struggles to cope.
Shortly after Anne's stroke, Alexandre — the former student, played by the real-life pianist Alexandre Tharaud — makes a surprise visit. He is visibly unsettled to find her in a wheelchair and asks what happened; she explains politely, "It happens with age," and changes the subject. They talk of his career and success, and Anne asks if he will play a bit of Beethoven's Bagatelle, Op. 126 No. 2 in G minor, a piece she made him learn when he was 12. Alexandre hesitates, saying he hasn't played the piece in years and isn't sure he'll remember it — then proceeds to sit at the piano in the couple's living room and perform it flawlessly. (The performance is, by all appearances, captured live.)
Later, as Anne rests in bed, a piano arrangement of the Bach cantata "Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ" can be heard softly in the background. Suddenly, the music stops — and Anne calls out to ask what's wrong. We cut to the living room and find Georges seated at the piano, staring blankly at the keys.
These two episodes show the progress of time, plot and character: Alexandre in his prime, Anne distraught but alert, Georges beginning to unravel. But there's also a hint in these scenes — specifically, in the way the music reaches us — of where each of them wants to be.
Alexandre's performance is essentially documentary. There's no cinematic trickery here — just a musician playing music, little different from what you'd see and hear watching video of an actual Alexandre Tharaud concert. Georges' turn at the piano is different. We hear the music before we can see its source, and so for a moment it seems superimposed on the action — that is, it seems like score music. Only when it stops, and Anne reacts, do we realize it was coming from within the world of the film.
Why the bait and switch? It's a trick more native to comedy. We expect movie music to be sneaky, invisibly guiding our emotions, immersing us in the moment. The surprise of seeing the music-maker revealed onscreen is one that Mel Brooks or Woody Allen would play for a laugh, but in Haneke's hands it's cold water. One moment we're watching Georges and Anne's trauma from afar; the next we're pulled in close, experiencing the present as they do.
The final music cue comes once the story has passed a definitive point of no return. Anne has had a second stroke and can no longer speak clearly, control her body's functions or leave her bed. Nurses tend to her in shifts, taking on the work that Georges can no longer manage. She moans through the night, refuses to eat, bursts unprovoked into tears or laughter. When their daughter Eva drops by, Georges begs her not to enter the room that holds her mother. "She's increasingly like a defenseless child," he explains. "None of all that deserves to be shown." And though he remains devoted, Georges is deteriorating too. His feet are heavier, his temper shorter; stress dreams where he's trapped inside the apartment terrorize him at night.
Amid all that strain and heartbreak, a vision arrives. We've just witnessed a diaper-changing scene that epitomizes the indignity of getting sick in old age: the body enfeebled and exposed, the rough touch of unfamiliar hands, voices that speak as though the afflicted weren't right there listening. And then, in a flash, we are back in the living room. Sunlight streams through the sheer curtains, music fills the air — and at the piano sits Anne, looking elegant.
Her hair is perfectly set. She is smartly dressed in a sweater that flatters her and glasses that give her a professorial poise. The piece she is playing, Schubert's Impromptu D. 899 Op. 90 No. 3, is beautiful too. Sweet, languid and lyrical, it's the first music we've heard in Amour whose sound evokes being in love.
The sight of Anne like this is wondrous, and, of course, a fantasy. After a few seconds the camera cuts to Georges on the other side of the room, sitting by a stereo whose lighted display ticks conspicuously along. He turns, absently, and switches the device off. There is silence.
Anybody who has watched a loved one go through dementia will tell you: Beyond a certain point, the person exists more in your memory than they do in their own body. The Anne that Georges fell in love with, and built a life with, has mostly vanished from the world he inhabits. Caring for what little of her remains is torment. And so, he daydreams, calling on the music that has suffused their lives to take him back in time, however temporarily.
That we met Georges and Anne as faces in a crowd, undifferentiated from the rest of the audience at Alexandre's concert, resonates as the film nears its sad and inevitable end. We know Anne will die, because we know everybody dies; the details of the story are particular, but the conclusion is universal.
And yet, we cannot really imagine what it's like to see someone we care about nearing death — not until it happens. It remains an abstraction, kept at arm's length, too terrible to reckon with until we have no choice. Amour, in its spareness, mostly denies us that detachment. There's no pinprick violin to warn us when something's wrong and certainly no pop song rolling under the end credits to reassure us that it's all been a show. It's only when music enters the characters' lives, granting them a brief reprieve from their troubles, that we are allowed the same relief.