DIRECTOR Michael Haneke has many things going for him. But after watching Amour, which some consider his masterpiece, it becomes clear his key asset is his respect for the audience.
You see it in his plots, which tend to unfold slowly and with intrigue and have you musing long after you’ve left the cinema. You see it in his occasional flashes of violence, which seem to want to shake the audience out of any complacency.
And you see it in his style, a stillness that can be mistaken for coldness but that I prefer to see as a striking position against much that is modish in modern cinema. He asks you to look at the frame, all of it, and process it.
Haneke doesn’t use tricks to push your focus; he doesn’t manipulate. He tells his viewer: here’s your scene, go looking.
No example is starker than the second scene in Amour, in which his camera looks back at an audience at a Paris theatre as it prepares for the opening notes of a piano recital. Your eyes may be drawn to someone, or they may not. It isn’t crucial to your understanding of the subsequent film, yet it adds something delightful if you make the connection before the tale of a couple in their 80s unfolds.
There is also a stillness to Haneke’s camera that can be unnverving, as in many shots in Cache (Hidden). This gives his films time to breathe and his audience time to delve and consider. Stylistically, it is a blessed contrast to the absurdity of today’s omnipresent hand-held camera effect. Even the new Pixar animated short The Blue Umbrella, screening before Monsters University, uses the visual cliche. Why would you want animated unsteadiness?
Anyway, Haneke’s respect for his audience may have been stretched by Amour. It is a contemplative film about a couple, Anne and Georges (played with stunning grace by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant). Contemplative because the opening scene shows you how it will end and the prospect of something maudlin is obvious.
The former music teachers and performers return from a concert by one of Anne’s former pupils, quietly revelling in the joy part of their life has brought to others. Later, over breakfast, Anne freezes, seemingly because of a stroke, and their relationship begins its heartbreaking final chapter.
Amour is not so much about death as the celebration of life. For anyone who has had the misfortune of seeing someone close to them decide their innings is up, Amour is particularly poignant. Haneke’s masterstroke is showing Anne and Georges not give up on the rich life they shared. Amour won the Palme d’Or in Cannes last year and an Academy Award this year, and is a nigh perfect film whose only bum note was a subtitle that used the word ‘‘burglarised’’.