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Film

Amour

For better or for worse

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Director Michael Haneke makes such deliberate, masterful movies. His last was The White Ribbon, about a German village and its troubled children before World War I.

Yet as remarkable as Haneke’s films are, not a one has been as transcendently generous as Amour, which is nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture, best director and best foreign-language film.

This French-language drama—starring luminaries Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva—rides on a disarmingly simple premise. One so straightforward that its production synopsis reads like a haiku compared with most.

“Georges and Anne are in their 80s. They are cultivated, retired music teachers. Their daughter, who is also a musician, lives abroad with her family. One day, Anne has an attack. The couple’s bond of love is severely tested.”

I share this with you not to evade my responsibilities as a reviewer so much as to give you a taste of Haneke’s penchant for the eloquently spare, the unsentimental yet impossibly freighted.

Amour starts with a mystery. Police break into a well-appointed Paris apartment and find a body gently laid out as if for a funeral ceremony. The scene that follows shows an audience taking seats for a concert. They face us much the way we face them.

Anne and Georges attend the recital. French classical pianist Alexandre Tharaud portrays Anne’s former student.

From the moment Riva and Trintignant arrive on screen, we trust Anne and Georges’ love. Riva, 85, is the oldest woman nominated for an Oscar for best actress. Trintignant, 82, proves just as deserving. He just had a harder field.
After the concert, the couple returns to their apartment, the one so unceremoniously breached earlier. As their lives begin to unwind due to a stroke, we never leave this apartment again.

This sounds claustrophobic. It isn’t. Instead it seems an assertion of just how much of their lives have been poured into each corner. Shot by cinematographer Darius Khondji, the rooms and hallways suggest both a haunted emptiness and a place infused with its inhabitants’ presence. Georges and Anne are not yet ghosts. They are not yet dearly departed. Though Anne’s condition represents a slow slipping away.

Georges’ tender caretaking of his mate doesn’t appear to be some new mindfulness on his part. Haneke gives us the sense in a thousand nuanced details that these two have paid heed to each other for decades.

Georges rises to the challenge of Anne’s decline before beginning to be swamped by the responsibilities. Help they’ve never required becomes a necessity. The apartment super and his wife step up. Nurses are called, one kind the other rough. There are wheelchairs, a medical bed.

For her part, Anne sets the tone of her illness. Or at least attempts to. She shoos Georges away. She takes a book in one hand to read in bed even as her right side is partially paralyzed.

Everyone who enters the apartments seems like an interloper. Even daughter Eva, played so well by Isabelle Huppert, feels like a bull in a china shop. Though any child of a parent in decline will recognize their own ache.

The film avoids the typical tricks of reconstructing a life. There is only one flashback (though the tale itself is a long, elegant flashback). Haneke places it in between a scene of Anne being cleaned by a nurse and Georges sitting forlorn in a chair, staring out. Is the memory of Anne playing the piano hers or his or both of theirs?

In the midst of some of the physical indignities there are minor triumphs. A ride around the apartment on an electric wheelchair elicits a laugh from Anne. What must that sound of delight have been like to hear on a regular basis?

When this intimate portrait of aging and loss becomes too much, the clarity of the title is a balm. Love. Haneke has made a masterpiece about how it falters then rises again, how it may in some way outlive our unkind bodies, how it too ages.

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