Tough love. Michael Haneke’s compassion project

Hailed as putting a human face on Michael Haneke’s work after his elegant but chilling successes, Amour is a tough but surprisingly tender masterpiece.

Yet for hardcore Haneke fans, it’s a familiar journey. Degeneration and death are simply the latest in a line of merciless home invaders stretching from Funny Games to The White Ribbon.

Parisian geriatrics George and Anne, sideswiped by the latter’s descent into dementia and disability, are torture victims in Haneke’s finest tradition. Who else could make a hated hair brushing, or a sudden slap, reverberate with such finely muffled rage and misery?

Haneke uses a deft combination of distance and dramatic intimacy to get right inside the couple’s experience. Stately, static lensing turns the pair’s spacious apartment into an invalid’s fortress. Besieged by a burglary attempt, a stray pigeon and a diffident daughter (Isabelle Huppert), a Polanskian claustrophobia creeps in.

Thank God then, for the humanising brilliance of Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performances. Even in rehearsal (check out the Making Of) Riva brings heartbreaking dignity to Anne, admitting to Haneke how traumatising the shoot is for her.

She may have grabbed all the awards attention, but Trintignant’s George, crackling with love and anger combined, is the standout here. DVD extras reveal Haneke’s total control (seeing him give Huppert notes on the right kind of stifled sob is an education in itself).

Astonishing then, that a film so finely tuned to his vision can leave ample room to find rich ambiguities: you can see Amour as a horror story, a cautionary tale or an eloquent testament to the durability of love and fragility of life.

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