This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 24 February 2013
By now, Michael Haneke aficionados will know that Amour won the Palme D’Or at Cannes last year, won the BAFTA for Best Foreign Film, and is highly likely to take a prize at today’s Oscars (it’s up for Best Film, Original Screenplay, Actress, Foreign Film and Director. My bets are on the latter two).
The premise is simpler, yet even more devastating, than the Austrian director’s previous films. But while the couple in Amour are named Georges and Anne after their Hidden (Caché) counterparts, this plot is everyday, devoid of a whodunnit mystery or overt psychological cruelty, and the characters’ relationship much more solid – a true example of how love, felt over decades and into old age, can be.
The elderly couple live a comfortable life in a culture-filled apartment in Paris. Anne suffers a stroke, and Georges embarks on the long and painful journey of devotedly tending to his wife. Life is punctuated by visits from their self-centred daughter (a terrifically believable performance by Isabelle Huppert) but for almost the entire running time we are cocooned in the daily life of Georges and Anne, artfully echoing the growing suffocation of Anne’s world.
There’s no denying, this is a tough watch. The film has been receiving universally high star-ratings and accolades around the world. Emmanuelle Riva is making history as the oldest Best Actress nominee – she turns 86 on the day of the Awards! – and notwithstanding her powerful performance, for someone of that age to embody this subject matter makes her quite extraordinary. This speak to Haneke’s incredible talent for casting great actors who take themselves (and us) deep into the world of their character, and for creating an atmosphere that is on the one hand entirely natural, while also completely enthralling. Something as simple as Georges (the legendary Jean-Louis Trintignant, a worthy partner to Riva) recounting a tale from his youth, has us hanging on every word.
Those who appreciated Hidden will recognise Haneke’s style, shooting scenes from a static camera position, quietly listening in on his actors, or from a distance through doorways that neatly frame the action as if not wanting to intrude. The long-held shots allow for complete immersion in the performances, more like theatre than film. Like the closing shot in Hidden, this film starts with a long takes shot from a distance, your gaze searching out the leads who are inconspicuously present amidst a crowd – everyday people, to whom everyday things will happen.
Without doubt, Amour, for all its emotional devastation, is a superlative film. If you have the stomach for such truths as it unveils, it is a deeply rewarding watch.