By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Austrian director Michael Haneke will arrive at the Academy Awards ceremony with his stark drama "Amour" vying for a surprising five Oscars including Best Picture, despite its distinctly non-Hollywood ending.
The French-language film that tackles death and aging is up against Best Picture favorites "Lincoln" and "Argo" on February 24, as well as competing for Best Director, Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress.
No foreign language film has won the top prize in the 85-year history of the Academy Awards.
But "Amour" and its journey to the Oscars could have a happy ending as it is pegged as favorite for Best Foreign Language Picture, an award for which Haneke's "The White Ribbon" was nominated in 2010.
"Amour" is Austria's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film.
Haneke, 70, who is one of Europe's top directors and a master of the unhappy ending, admits "Amour" is not easy viewing, focusing on the physical and psychological suffering at the end of life.
The film details the everyday struggles and indignities of elderly Parisian couple Anne and Georges as they confront Anne's slide toward death.
"It's no walk in the park, but it's difficult and serious, and that makes it contemplative," Haneke told Reuters by phone from Madrid, where he is directing the Mozart opera "Cosi Fan Tutte."
In "Amour," Georges, played by veteran French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, cares for bed-ridden Anne, played by Emmanuelle Riva, who has difficulty moving and speaking following a stroke.
One day when Anne is particularly beset by pain, Georges suffocates her, presumably out of love and to end her suffering.
Riva, 85, earned a Best Actress nomination for her role and made Hollywood history as the oldest actress to be nominated for the leading female award.
Haneke, known for 2001's "The Piano Teacher" and 1997's "Funny Games" and its 2007 Hollywood remake, said the story was motivated by an aged aunt in poor health who asked him to help her commit suicide.
"I loved her very much and to watch her suffer was very difficult, but I certainly couldn't help her (kill herself) because I'd be thrown in jail," Haneke said. "Personally, I don't believe I could've done it anyway."
Haneke's aunt killed herself at the age of 93.
"Amour" has already won wide acclaim, winning the top honor at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival and Best Foreign Language Film at Hollywood's Golden Globe Awards in January.
The film is vying for the Best Foreign Language Oscar alongside "Kon-Tiki" from Norway chronicling Thor Heyerdahl's 1947 trans-Pacific expedition on a raft; Chilean political drama "No," with Gael Garcia Bernal; Danish period drama "A Royal Affair"; and "War Witch," a Canadian drama about an African child soldier.
Critics have applauded "Amour" for its heart and tenderness, but have cautioned moviegoers about the bleak storyline as Anne slowly dissolves on screen.
The New York Review of Books' Francine Prose called the drama the "ultimate horror film ... far scarier and more disturbing" than classics such as "Psycho" and "The Shining."
Tom Long at The Detroit News echoed those sentiments: "In many ways it's the best horror film I've ever seen. At the same time, it's hard to recommend; I believe I will be struggling to forget this film as long as I live."
Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, cautioned, "Old age isn't for sissies, and neither is this film."
Haneke noted how audiences have found "Amour" mirrors their own experiences, as it did his own.
"I believe that it has been a bit exaggerated how the film has been portrayed as so shocking, but the truth is always shocking ... we all grow old and nearly all of us get sick," he said.
"People have said it's just like what happened to me and my family. It indeed crosses generations as young people see how their grandparents die, become ill or simply suffer, and now their parents are in the same situation. It's a matter that affects everyone."
(Reporting by Eric Kelsey; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith and Vicki Allen)