Michael Haneke’s Amour will be the film of the year for many, given the strong performances from its two lead actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, as the elderly retired piano teachers, Anne and Georges Laurent. The Laurents' warm, intimate relationship is palpable from the start of the film, after they attend a piano recital given by one of their ex-students, Alexandre, who is making serious headway as a professional pianist.
Then, as the couple sit at breakfast the next morning, Anne goes into a sort of trance, and refuses to reply to her husband’s questions. It later transpires that she has suffered a mini-stroke, which, following an unsuccessful operation, will be followed by further strokes. Anne asks her husband never to put her in hospital again, so he insists on caring for his wife at home, despite all the obvious difficulties.
Amour is uncompromising in its portrayal of serious mental and physical deterioration, and Haneke doesn’t spare the viewer all the un-pretty details that most of us turn our eyes away from, and only deal with when we have to.
But the veteran Austrian director and writer is keenly attuned to rhythm and he can ever so subtly shift the mood away from bleakness, much of which work is down to his director of photography, Darius Khondji. For instance, the arrival of a photo album takes Anne back through all the years of her life, to when she was young, and in the whole of her health. Or Alexandre visits and plays on the baby grand a particular Schubert piece which Anne asks for, a piece she can no longer play herself.
The sequence in which a rostrum camera focuses on a series of six unnamed paintings in the couple’s apartment is quietly astonishing. These beautiful eighteenth-century landscapes with their tiny human figures somehow echo in their sense of immense physical beauty one of Anne’s final intelligible comments, before her speech degenerates to gibberish. As she closes the photo albums, she simply says to her husband how beautiful and how long life is. The message lingers, both as invitation and warning throughout the remainder of Amour.
Isabelle Huppert is perfect as the couple’s daughter Eva, dealing with the stresses of her own married life, while trying to persuade her stubborn father that it would be best if her mother was moved to hospital.
It may not be the stuff of knockabout entertainment, yet Haneke manages to form an elegant, austere beauty out of very bleak material indeed in Amour. It is even more impressive when you realise that Jean-Louis Trintignant is now 82, and Emmanuelle Riva is a sprightly 85. Amour won the Palme D'Or at Cannes and is released at the IFI (and selected cinemas) from November 16.