Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke isn't the obvious choice for a movie about love at its weightiest and most profound. In previous works like Funny Games, The Piano Teacher, The White Ribbon and Caché, he has crafted cinematic nipple twists that tweak audiences while examining humankind at its cruelest.
In other words, the guy is definitely not the lovey-dovey type.
But that unblinking, cold-blooded aesthetic is largely what makes Amour, which opens Friday at AMC Quail Springs Mall 24, so remarkable. In its depiction of an elderly Parisian couple coming to terms with illness and looming death, the film is almost brutal in its rejection of sentimentality.
Haneke tells the story of the genial pair, Georges and Anne Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), with chilly calculation. There are long takes and exquisitely choreographed camera movement. Together with brilliant performances of its principal actors, Amour is an unflinchingly honest portrait of a love not often seen on screen: the kind that survives past youth and romance to endure the most painful of trials. It's little wonder that it won the Cannes Film Festival's prestigious Palme d'Or last year and currently is nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Foreign-Language Film.
The screenplay by Haneke is deceptively straightforward. Anne, a former piano teacher, suffers a mild stroke. That is followed by another episode, then an unsuccessful surgery and, eventually, rapid physical and mental decay. She loses the ability to walk, to speak. Georges hires a part-time nurse, but the additional care cannot hope to relieve the couple’s anguish. The Laurents' grown daughter (Isabelle Huppert, a Haneke regular) visits occasionally, but is no comfort to her father, who grows impatient with her simplistic, if well-meaning, offers of help.
Sound like a fun night at the movies, right? There's no disputing that Amour is a tough, emotionally grueling watch. But it is also a powerful meditation of love and commitment. Trintignant and Riva, both of whom have appeared in some masterpieces of international film — he in 1970's The Conformist, she in 1959's Hiroshima, Mon Amour — are riveting. The two plumb considerable emotional depths with restraint and admirable subtlety, and never hit a false note.
Riva, incidentally, will celebrate her 86th birthday on Feb. 24, the night of the Academy Awards, for which she is nominated for Best Actress. While she's a long-shot for the prize, her performance is one for the ages, not just the aged. —Phil Bacharach
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