Austrian writer-director Michael Haneke’s Amour has a very late release here. When it arrives however, it does so with quite a reputation after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and having built as strong an Oscar campaign as a foreign film ever has. The plot to Amour is brutally and deceptively simple – a retired octogenarian couple has their comfortable existence and titular love put to the test when the wife suffers a stroke and, under the dutiful care of her devoted husband, her mental and physical condition rapidly deteriorate. It’s not about what happens to the wife (this is given away in the startling opening scene), but the process itself of how a couple in love after fifty years deals against hope with a tragedy neither could have prevented happening. We see photos and hear memories of their long, happy lives and there’s the bittersweet underlying message that despite the tragedy and indignity of what befalls the couple over the course of the film, they couldn’t have asked for a fate any better.
That the husband and wife are played by legends of the French cinema Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emanuelle Riva is particularly relevant to cinephiles – these are actors that we have seen age over a half-century, barely recognisable from their screen beauty and grace in classics like Hiroshima, Mon Amour and And God Created Woman. Riva rightfully earned a Best Actress nomination as the suffering wife, playing a very brave and difficult role – films on ageing have been made before, but it’s not eaxactly The Bucket List – her mental and physical decline is something that is extremely confronting and heartbreaking to watch, and told with an unflinching honesty that is near unprecedented in film. Trintignant is brilliant in his first film role in 14 years, as the husband conflicted with love, despair, and above all, frustration and helplessness.
While this film is unmistakably Haneke – filmed with immaculately framed interiors and long static takes, and dealing with previous thematic concerns, particularly class and ethnic isolation in contemporary Europe – it lacks the detached, nihilistic outlook of something like his brilliant Funny Games or The Piano Teacher. Rather, there’s a warmth and compassion that his detractors had always found lacking and Haneke, now 70, has openly talked about his own marriage and the personal significance of this film, suggesting that one of the world’s foremost artists is still evolving and developing a new level of self-expression. In short, this is a must-see – you’ll be unlikely to see a more emotionally engaging, provocative or quite simply, better, film this year.