Reviewer's rating: 9/10
Amour - Trailer
Amour is the story of Georges and Anne, former music teachers whose seamlessly elegant lives are ripped down the middle when Anne has a series of strokes.PT0M0S 620 349
Michael Haneke's musing on ageing and the inevitable decay of the body and mind is, by its very nature, fraught with conflicting emotions.
The writer-director has often been labeled misanthropic for mining bleak subject matter - 1997's Funny Games is a well-known example - and this ode to deep-seated love, ripped apart by a natural turn of events, will come as a surprise. It's warm and compassionate yet brutal and, as with life, ultimately cruel.
The German-born, Austrian-raised Haneke, who turned 70 last year, says his film is based to some extent on his own experience. The film - nominated for five Oscars - was shot in a Paris apartment modelled on the former home of his parents. A beloved aunt who helped raise him as a child took her own life, at 92, after Haneke refused to help her die.
The film's won the Palme d'Or at Cannes last May in what was, in effect, a one-horse race.
An abundant use of static wide shots presents what is - initially, at least - an orderly, elderly, dignified life, rich with culture and feeling. (The film is expertly captured by veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji.)
Retired music teachers Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, lured out of retirement by Haneke) are an affectionate and loving couple, absorbed by their life together.
A daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), is distant, being based in London. Much is left to interpretation, as with any familial set-up. Haneke famously loathes Hollywood's fondness for spoon-feeding its audience.
Crucially, when the pivotal moment for the octogenarian couple strikes, it comes quietly: a subtle nuance of alarm that is nevertheless terrifying and expertly executed. Anne zones out, not responding to Georges.
A gut-wrenching sense of knowing and horror permeates through him and us, united in shock and dismay at what has occurred.
For the remainder of the film, Georges must nurse his ailing beloved as she grows increasingly erratic, immobile and unwilling to carry on. Anger, resentment and despair combine to derail them both. The reality of ageing has rarely felt so visceral in such a minimalist setting.
Amour - surely the only word that sums up the Francophile's most acclaimed work to date - has emerged as an unlikely contender at this year's Oscars. Haneke is nominated for best director, the film for best picture. The 85-year-old Riva - here inverting her classic turn in Alain Resnais's 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour - is the oldest acting nominee ever at the Academy Awards (and, fittingly, is alongside the youngest - nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, of Beasts of the Southern Wild). Riva's 86th birthday falls on the day of the Oscars (February 24).
Haneke's startling film stands in stark contrast to other recent fare that seemingly addresses similar issues. The gentle whimsy of Dustin Hoffman's Quartet viewed dementia through the good-natured prism of collective Californian-infused joy, while John Madden's picture-postcard romp The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel pointed to fulfilling dreams before it's too late. Haneke's film has a far broader appeal beyond those baby boomer-oriented comedies, and a far harsher, more engaging point to make.
Much of Amour will appear all too familiar to those who have lost parents and/or elderly relatives. It is haunting in its unwavering determination to show the sheer depth of despair that love can bring. Yet at its core lies an astonishingly intuitive reading of life and death.
Who knew Haneke was capable of such stuff? There's an unnerving sense of compassion in his work, a spring of sorts in his step. Whether this lasts or not, there has never been a finer time to explore the complex mind of a man who is riding high with uncharacteristic feeling and empathy.
Amour opens in Australian cinemas today.