The 11th feature by Austrian director Michael Haneke already had a swag of awards before winning the Oscar for best foreign film, including his second Cannes Palme d'Or, a Golden Globe and nods on both sides of the English Channel.
Oscar recognition comes not a minute too soon for a man who has stamped his distinctive mark on European cinema for nearly a quarter-century now. And it's perhaps no coincidence that Amour lacks the emotional austerity of his other work.
The characters of Haneke's films - eerily calm thugs who conduct a methodical home invasion (Funny Games); a sexually repressed, self-mutilating woman (The Piano Teacher); a literary celebrity couple in Paris (Hidden) - are observed with what seems like the cool detachment of an entomologist. It's one of his strengths as a film-maker that he denies the viewer the chance to glibly and sentimentally engage with the people he creates. But the couple in Amour are the first he has given us who are possible to love.
They are Georges and Anne, retired piano teachers in their 80s, who live in a fusty Paris apartment where all the film's action, save a couple of early shots, is set. One morning at breakfast Anne suffers a small but significant stroke, setting in motion a story that has an inevitable outcome, plainly depicted at the film's beginning.
In moving the story forward, Haneke, who also wrote the script, deploys the meticulous and assured technique that has earned him so much admiration. But he also shows a warmth that has been little in evidence before.
The care Georges showers on Anne, right up to the end, is not self-sacrifice but the love of the title. In sharp contrast to his daughter Eva (Huppert), he knows no other way to respond; such love is a mystery to Eva (when he asks her if she loves her husband, she says she thinks so).
The film has a still, even contemplative tone: long sequences take place in front of a still camera; the soundtrack is spare - the music that is used serves a powerful narrative function so its emotional effect is never gratuitous; the diffuse interior light suits the meditative pace; and slight ellipses - some events are understood rather than depicted and the ending is devastatingly ambiguous - keep us engaged as it moves forward.
The result is a haunting, completely integrated work of art driven by two performances by veterans - Riva and Trintignant were both stars by 1960 - that are quite beyond praise. The first bona fide masterpiece of the year has arrived.
Cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert
Director: Michael Haneke
Running time: 127 mins
Rating: R13 (content may disturb) In French with English subtitles
Verdict: The year's first bona fide masterpiece