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Truthful to the final haunting breath

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.

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.

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.