Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anna (Emmanuelle Riva) are two former music teachers, now in their eighties and living in retirement in a flat in Paris. One morning, Anne freezes at the breakfast table and cannot remember what has happened...
There's an argument that you can split “third-agers” into two demographics, the likely to be more active elderly aged between sixty and eighty, and those older, a time when health challenges become more and more likely. It's subject matter that much commercial cinema shies away from as it chases a more youthful audience, and when it does such deal with this material, the traps of egregious sentimentality gape very wide.
As you might expect, Michael Haneke's approach in Amour is anything but sentimental. He prepares us for the ending by opening the film with the door of the flat being broken down and Anne's body being found lying on the bed. Then he cuts to the title card and we go into flashback, with a stage-eye-view shot of an audience – look closely and you'll see Georges and Anne among them, though Haneke doesn't make a point of picking them out until the next scene - settling down to watch a recital by Anne's former pupil Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud, a real-life concert pianist making his acting debut). After the journey home, we spend the rest of the film inside Georges and Anne's flat, shot in a studio but its design closely modelled on Haneke's own parents' flat. Visitors come and go: Alexandre, nurses and cleaners, and most importantly the couple's daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) with or without her English husband Geoff (William Shimell). But Haneke keeps us there, enclosed, unable to escape. There's plenty of music in this film, but it's all diegetic; there's no music score to tell us what and how to feel about what we see. The opening and closing credits play out in silence, so that the opening crash of the door being forced will give you quite a jolt. Haneke is unsentimental to the point of ruthlessness in depicting Anne's physical and mental decline, from the initial blankness via semi-paralysis, to having to be fitted with a nappy and being bedridden. In one scene Haneke films his eighty-five-year-old lead actress naked as a nurse washes her.
The casting is key to this film, as our two octogenarian leads have considerable cinematic history, one that we've seen in many films over the decades. In the UK, Emmanuelle Riva is mostly known for her lead role in Hiroshima mon amour but little else despite a long career, while Trintignant has been a familiar visitor to UK cinemas over the decades – including an excursion to Hollywood to make Under Fire - but other than voiceover work, this is his first film in nearly a decade. It works to have two actors with such an on-screen past, as in a sense, as Eva has done, we have grown up with them, and it is soon time to say goodbye to them. This is something that those who are of that age or near to it, can certainly appreciate; likewise, if you are fortunate enough to still have your parents at that age. In this sense, Eva is something of a surrogate for the audience: there's a key, and genuinely touching, scene earlier on when she tells Georges that overhearing the sounds of his and Anne's lovemaking when she was much younger was comforting to her.
Riva has the most demanding role, and the one rewarded by awards and an Oscar nomination, and she's so convincing that it's a relief to find her in the extras quite well and entirely lucid. However, the film turns on Georges, and Trintignant gives a very subtle, quite self-effacing performance – but there's no mistaking the increasing pain written on his face and in his body language, so much so that the ending, while shocking, is inevitable in retrospect. Huppert makes the most of her few scenes, and a small supporting cast is solid. Haneke succeeds in making a small and deliberately enclosed location entirely cinematic, with several key scenes playing out in long takes. The work of DP Darius Khondji and production designer Jean-Vincent Puzos is first-rate.
Amour premiered at Cannes and with this film, Haneke joined the select club of directors who have made two Palme d'Or winners, in his case with two successive films as he had won with his previous work The White Ribbon. I do have some reservations – the ending does teeter on the edge of melodrama and there's some symbolism involving a pigeon that's a tad heavy-handed – but this is a major work by one of the foremost directors currently active. The passing of time, and further viewings, will tell us if it's a great film.
Amour is released by Artificial Eye on a Blu-ray and DVD. The former is what was supplied for review, and it is encoded for Region B only. Affiliate links refer to this; for those for the DVD edition, I refer you here.
The Blu-ray is in the ratio of 1.85:1. Amour was shot digitally on the Arri Alexa, which captures at 2.8K resolution, and had a 4K digital intermediate. Other than in a probable few cinemas which showed 35mm prints (the cinema where I saw it on release not being among them), Amour has existed in the digital realm from start to finish. You'd expect a pristine transfer and you get one, which looks just like the 2K DCP I saw in the cinema four months ago as I write this, with the generally muted colours and shadow detail that's as it should be.
There's one soundtrack option in this French-language (with some English spoken when Geoff is around) film, DTS-HD MA 5.1. As there's no music score, surround is minimal other than ambience. The opening scene, with that loud initial crash, is pretty much all the subwoofer gets to do: piano music doesn't exactly have a big low end.
English subtitles, on the feature and all the extras, are electronic and non-optional.
The extras begin with an introduction (8:51) by Philippe Rouyer, co-author of a book Haneke on Haneke, enthusiastic but not telling us a great deal that we couldn't work out for ourselves. “Jean-Louis Trintignant Talks About Amour” (7:51) is a little misleading: although Trintignant is one of the speakers, is less an interview than a tribute to him, featuring Haneke (speaking in German, with a low-pitched French voice translating him) and an unidentified woman who was partly responsible for hiring the actor to do the narration for The White Ribbon, part of which we see. This item ends with Trintignant on stage reciting the poem “Why Do I Love” by Boris Vian. These two extras are 1080p50, presumably reflecting a television source. The other extras, like the feature, are 1080p24.
The making of documentary (25:46) features interviews with Haneke (again speaking in German, though this time only translated by the subtitles), Trintignant, Riva and Huppert, along with on-set and rehearsal footage, in a solid run-through of the film's making, from inspiration and writing to its production. Finally there is the trailer (1:56).