(M, 122 minutes.) Opens Thursday.
By its very nature, writer-director Michael Haneke's musing on ageing and the inevitable decay of the body and mind is fraught with conflicting emotions. Haneke has often been labelled misanthropic for mining bleak subject matter - 1997's Funny Games being a more recent, 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.
Amour - Trailer
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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.
The German-born, Austrian-raised Haneke, who turned 70 in 2012, says his five-time Oscar-nominated film is based, to some extent, on his own experiences. The film was shot in a Paris apartment modeled on the former home of his parents.
A beloved aunt, who helped raise him as a child, took her own life, aged 92, after Haneke himself refused to assist. The Palme d'Or at Cannes last May was effectively a one-horse race.
Visually, an abundant use of static wide shots (the film is expertly shot by veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji) presents what is, initially at least, an orderly, elderly, dignified life, rich in culture and feeling. Retired music teachers Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) are an affectionate and loving couple, absorbed with their life together. A daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), is distant (she's 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 does strike, 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 picture, 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 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 - veteran of such classics as Alain Resnais' 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour - is the oldest acting nominee ever at the Academy Awards (fittingly, alongside the youngest, nine-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis, of Beasts of the Southern Wild). Riva's 86th birthday falls on the same day as the Oscars themselves (February 24).
Regardless of this month's Oscars outcome - Amour has already picked up a string of awards at festivals around the world, but would seem an outsider with the academy at the time of writing - Haneke's startling film stands in stark contrast to other recent fare seemingly addressing 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 and despair that love can bring. Yet, at its core, lies an astonishingly intuitive reading of life and death that demands to be seen. As Haneke heads to Los Angeles for the Oscars, 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, for now at least, is riding high with uncharacteristic feeling and empathy.