Review: Amour

During his steady mirthless ascent to arthouse cinema pre-eminence, Michael Haneke has covered an exhaustive range of horrors – Nazism, serial killing, apocalypse, sadomasochism etc. Now he deals with the greatest horror of all – growing old.

This year's Palme d'Or winner at Cannes is a comparatively frugal work, essentially an elderly couple in a Parisian apartment.

George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are a couple of music teacher in their eighties who are contentedly retired until she has a stroke that begins a slow, inexorable and immensely painful physical decline. In an apartment lined with great literature and the finest classical music, the two people will revert to a childlike primitive state and be prised apart from everything that had sustained them for the previous eighty years. Anne, in disregard for convention refuses to accept this with bravery or stoicism, and is begging for death quite early on. George though can't accept this; love demands that he see it through.

It may lack the bold sweep of films like White Ribbon, Hidden or Code Unknown but this is clearly the work of a master. Haneke appears to have seamlessly fused all the innovation and attributes of the greats of European cinema, into a calm clean style that is starkly effective and adaptable. Though his films couldn't be mistaken for anyone else, they are all quite distinct from one another. They come in all shapes and sizes but they work towards the same aim – dispensing misery. I believe I may hate this stern, unrelenting master. I have never quite forgiven him for making Funny Games, the first time.

It's not the misery I resent but what I perceive to be, the smug superiority with which it is dispensed. Haneke's quest seems to be to turn over ever rock and find the malaise beneath. He performs the same function as the internet, shining a light upon humanity's every dark motive and twisted failing.

But while his previous films have illuminated new or unexpected aspects of the human condition, things we may not have known, Amour exposes something that we all know about but choose to ignore. Is anyone not painfully aware that life is likely to end very badly; possibly in a way that strips away all the dignity and achievements that preceded it?

One of Haneke's recurring ideas is that culture and sophistication are ultimately no protection against the base horrors of human existence and Amour proves his point. All the magnificence of his film making can not disguise the film's ugliness. If this was a documentary it'd be slammed as intrusive and cruel and just because these aren't really people but two (very fine) performances doesn't make Haneke's clinical demarcation of human frailty any easier to take or give it any value. Haneke is a disciple of the cult of the raw and unflinching but his own lead character has a line that most effectively rebukes him, 'None of this deserves to be shown.'

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Director: Michael Haneke

Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, William Shimell, Ramon Agirre and Alexandre Tharaud

Length: 124 mins