In one of the opening scenes of Amour, we see a theatre audience settle into their chairs before the start of a performance. The camera looks head-on into a crowd of hundreds; but if you let your eyes wander, they will find themselves drawn to an old couple in the fourth row. Just as with the final shot in his meditative thriller Caché, director Michael Haneke shows that he can be incredibly subtle as a director: his directorial hand is incredibly firm but almost always invisible in Amour. For Haneke –the peerless master of European cinema– this is perhaps his most affecting film yet.
Jean-Louis Trintignant (Three Colours: Red) and this year’s Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima mon amour) are a married couple in their 80s. Formerly music teachers, they enjoy the spoils of retirement: reading books, drinking wine and attending concerts starring their former pupils. They’re living the kind of golden years you often see in insurance ads… until tragedy strikes. Riva is hit by a series of strokes and attacks, causing her health to deteriorate slowly but surely. Taking place almost entirely within their lovely Parisian flat, the film casts these walls as a prison; her condition has robbed her and her husband of their old lives. He looks after her the best he can, but even his best cannot stop his wife’s decline.
There are occasional visits from former students, their daughter (herself a touring musician) and a number of full-time carers but none of them can truly share his burden: the pain of having to watch his wife slowly disappear. We know the marriage vows always promise ‘for better or for worse’, though we rarely get to see the ‘for worse’ part.
Both she and Trintignant are heartbreaking in Amour, delivering two physically taxing performances well into their 80s. The scene where he tries to help her sing the word to Sur le Pont d’Avignon even though she can barely speak is one of the toughest things we’ve had to watch this year—and we’ve seen Maniac. The fact that Riva didn’t win the Oscar this year suggests only that not enough of the voters actually saw this.
It’s a really rough subject matter but Haneke handles it with sensitivity, framing scenes intimately, with great economy and a light touch. He takes its audience through the wringer, balancing sentiment and emotion with moments of clarity and dry humour. Amour deserves all the accolades it has received: it’s undeniably great.
Michael Haneke’s Amour is available on blinkbox Monday 18th March