Film of the week: Amour, Michael Haneke

127 minutes, 12A, Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva

A film called Amour sounds like a date movie, and I suppose Michael Haneke’s drama could be one – but only if it were your very last date on earth.

You have to keep reminding yourself of that title as the story proceeds, for it often seems to be less about love than about death, or rather, dying. Haneke, whose films have investigated the limits of cruelty and violence, here makes a slight departure within that form.

Whereas Funny Games, or The Piano Teacher, or (his previous and greatest) The White Ribbon focused on the human capacity for inflicting pain, Amour takes a cool, restrained look at cruelty as devised by nature. It is about what happens in age and then, in Larkin’s plangent phrase, “the only end of age”.

Apart from the opening scene – a static camera fixed upon an audience at a piano recital – the film takes place within a Parisian apartment, nicely furnished with books and paintings and a baby grand. Its occupants are a married couple, Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), elderly but active, and just returned from that recital given by one of Anne’s former students. As they take their coats off and he prepares a nightcap, they discuss their fears of being burgled.

In a Haneke film such a conversation would usually set off an alarm – in us. Adversity is lurking, but it’s not a burglar they have to worry about. One morning the couple are having breakfast when Anne suffers some kind of episode, a sudden falling silent which, on recovery, Georges calls a “prank”. Wrongly, as it turns out. Anne has had a stroke that paralyses her arm, and Georges is now required to look after her, as well as do all the chores that were her domain.

The film considers the methodical way in which they cope. At mealtimes, Georges helps to feed her, and when she needs the bathroom he carries her in an upright hold that looks like a clumsy sort of dance. We don’t learn a great deal of what their life together has been prior to this.

“You’re a monster sometimes,” she tells him. “But very kind.” He accepts this without demur. A music teacher once, like her, Georges is seen playing the piano, but stops mid-piece. Anne is also seen playing, in flashback, though this too is edited into a shot of Georges listening to the same piece on the stereo. Interrupted music becomes a leitmotif, and a metaphor of Anne’s curtailed movement – her hands stilled to silence.

When the couple’s daughter, Eva, shows up at the apartment, she is full of anxious enquiries about her mother, though Georges isn’t really interested in explaining matters. Eva is played by Isabelle Huppert, whose gimlet gaze and brittle manner would usually be enough to cow anyone, but not Georges. This is his struggle; he doesn’t much like his son-in-law, Geoff (“his British humour is bearable only in small doses”), and Eva is just getting in the way. This is so unlike the Hollywood approach to illness, with its assumptions of unifying the family in crisis, as to seem almost a rebuke on Haneke’s part.

Anne’s condition deteriorates, her mind colandered by dementia, yet the film keeps its nerve and refuses to see it as an opportunity for the living. We watch husband and wife grow, as it were, closer and closer apart. Georges has earlier promised Anne that he won’t let her die in hospital, and so we learn how a spouse may become a carer to the “defenceless child” who is his partner.

And we see how he demands the same rigorous standard of care from the professionals he hires by the hour when he’s otherwise engaged. In one of the most charged scenes he coolly and ruthlessly dismisses a nurse who has distressed Anne by holding up a mirror to her face – unpalatable evidence. He berates the woman for “incompetence”, though one wonders if there was more than just a single thoughtless error to  account for. Haneke, as ever, prefers an elliptical approach to narrative.

The scene-by-scene effect of Anne’s disintegration could not be anything other than dismaying, and the film will be especially tough for viewers who have memories of watching a loved one fade before their eyes. In this regard, Emmanuelle Riva’s commitment to the camera feels brave, mimicking as she does the terrible stages of mortal decline. Again, I thought of Larkin, and his poem “The Old Fools”: “At death, you break up: the bits that were you/ Start speeding away from each other for ever/ With no one to see”.

Easy to pretend death; not so to convey the state of being barely alive. By the end I found I couldn’t properly remember what Anne looked like in health. And it is the more haunting to think of the actress herself as still alive, after we have seen her death mask. Trintignant, showing a different face to the one made famous in The Conformist, is also tremendously moving as the stoical Georges, trapped in his own dance of death.

The sadness of this film is undeniable, but not unbearable. Haneke, like Larkin, wants to tell the truth about dying, but also about the consolations of the living. “What will survive of us is love” could almost be the epigraph to this film, its austere and compassionate gaze seeming to suggest that death, for all its ravages, doesn’t reduce everything to smoke.

In some ways, Amour is a characteristic Michael Haneke film, unflinching, beady-eyed, beholden to nothing but itself. And yet it’s also touched by something unexpected. Who would have thought this film-maker had such tenderness in him?