Film review: Bright Love Amid Bleak Illness in Brilliant ‘Amour’

Amour 5Michael Haneke’s masterful Amour is a brilliant paradox, excruciating to watch yet enthralling to view. It’s unsparing in its grim portrait of old-age illness and death, but it lives up to its title by presenting a love that burns as bright as the terminal storyline is bleak.

Nashville audiences will get to see the feature that won the 2012 Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is up for four Academy Awards on Feb. 24 beginning Friday at the Belcourt Theatre. The Belcourt long ago staked its claim as the Music City’s go-to place for the world’s best cinema, and this entry on their screening schedule – part of their Oscar Picks programming that runs through Feb. 23 – adds to that well-earned reputation.

Amour 4Haneke doesn’t keep us in suspense about the outcome – we know the final destination from the opening scene that shows authorities entering a Paris apartment and finding a decomposing body – but he slowly and finely etches the tale of what led to that ending. And with a cast that contains such longtime French acting luminaries as Jean-Louis Trintignant (A Man and a Woman), Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima, mon amour) and Isabelle Huppert (Violette Nozière) it’s not surprising that what could have been very tedious in inferior hands is instead quite compelling.

After that begin-at-the-end opening we’re taken back to just before clouds gathered on the horizon for Georges (Trintignant) and Anne (Riva). They’re a loving octogenarian couple who are retired music teachers. We see them in the audience at a concert given by one of Anne’s former students (pianist Alexandre Tharaud essentially playing himself in his acting debut). All seems well as they watch (we never see Tharaud on the stage) and later attend a reception (with some Franz Schubert music underscoring the elegant framing that holds Amour in its steady grip). When they return home, though, they discover someone has attempted to break into their home. That’s the first sign that their seemingly happy retirement won’t stay so much longer.

Amour 7An incident at breakfast triggers a downward health spiral for Anne, with Georges finding it increasingly difficult to care for her. The situation is not helped by self-centered daughter Eva (Huppert), who’s more at ease talking about her own professional and personal concerns than she’ll ever be about discussing what’s going on with her aging parents. And the mounting indignities of lingering illness (from assisted bathroom visits to cleaning bedsores) come at us throughout Georges and Anne’s journey to oblivion, slowed only momentarily when she delights in his rendition of “Sur le Pont d’Avignon.”

Riva is up for a Best Actress Oscar (at 85 the oldest nominee ever in that category), and she has already received several accolades for her performance. It’s all justified; the arc she takes her character on – from a proud, refined woman to a bed-ridden shell of what she once was – is a highly challenging journey that Riva’s experience, talent and focus makes real. And her tender love for her husband, as well as an element of tantalizing mystery, accompanies her delivery of the line “You’re a monster sometimes, but very kind.” What makes Anne call Georges a monster? We never find out, but it doesn’t matter since Riva gets us to completely buy in to whatever she’s conveying anyway.

Amour 1The now 82-year-old Trintignant is no less impressive; the light leaves his eyes and the energy drains from his face as the film progresses until he too presents a character that is a husk of its former self. As with Riva, there’s more than disintegration in Trintignant’s portrayal – Georges’ resolve comes out clearly, particularly when he pointedly tells his self-absorbed daughter, “We’ve always coped, your mother and I.”

As that daughter Huppert could have had a thankless assignment, but in her ever-assured way we come to understand and to some degree sympathize with a middle-aged woman who long ago gave up trying to connect with her somewhat imperious mother and father. And while her character’s desire to place Anne in a nursing home is rebuffed by Georges – “None of all that,” he starchily says of her deteriorating condition, “deserves to be seen” – we understand her frustration with this new and final phase in her parents’ life.

Amour 8Haneke is certainly used to discomforting audiences (the deranged, masochistic music professor at the center of his 2001 drama The Piano Teacher comes readily to mind) but the Austrian director/writer has an unsentimental approach to life in his films that serves Amour well. And his second collaboration with cinematographer Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris) – the first was Funny Games – produces an intimate but still detached observation that informs without passing judgment on the proceedings. Haneke trusts that we’ll decide what Amour means to us, and that’s ultimately why this film’s often-depressing story is so intriguing.

Amour (www.sonyclassics.com/amour) opens Friday (Feb. 8) in Nashville at the Belcourt Theatre (2102 Belcourt Ave.) as part of its Oscar Picks series that concludes Feb. 23 (for times check out the film’s listing on the Belcourt website). Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including a disturbing act and for brief language, in French with English subtitles, 127 min. Written and directed by Michael Haneke. Starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, Alexandre Tharaud, Rita Blanco and Ramón Agirre.

 

*Photos by Darius Khondji courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).