Before anything can be said about Amour relating to its quality, it is important to note the effect that this weekend's Academy Awards will have on it; Amour will win the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and there is nothing more certain this year.
Amour is the story of an elderly couple, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who are much like our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. One day Georges finds Anne behaving strangely and has her taken to a hospital where a botched surgery on a blocked carotid artery leaves her right side paralyzed. As her health deteriorates, Georges continues to care for her the best he can, damning the opinion of anyone else who doesn't understand.
It's hard to imagine a more simple story in a film; neither Georges nor Anne were Nazis or former jewel thieves, there was no infidelity, and neither of them know the secret to eternal happiness. Thank god. It takes a filmmaker of undeniable talent to avoid the seduction of subplots that only serve to cheapen simple expressions of emotional attachment, and though Michael Haneke is no stranger to controversy with films like The Piano Teacher, Funny Games, Caché, and The White Ribbon, he succeeds completely in making a perfect film so free from controversy that it is staggering.
What's more, the film's primacy is served entirely by its aesthetic; those apt to label a judiciously directed, well-paced film laden with smartly used long takes 'boring' will find little to keep themselves involved. It's no Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained or Argo, and it isn't even close to Lincoln or Silver Linings Playbook. Again, thank god. Amour spends nearly every second of its two hours in the same apartment, usually in two or three rooms. The big question might be "How is this film interesting?"
Capturing the dialogue of two people who have spent fifty years together is not easy to do, and it's even harder to do well. Haneke brings us so close to his characters it's hard not to feel voyeuristic at times; Georges' frustration with his daughter, the nurses caring for Anne, and even his wife's lack of cooperation is always bubbling beneath the surface, and when he reaches a breaking point his simple choice in words is shocking. Georges' disagreement with one nurse leads to her defensively insulting him, and watching his silent reaction may be the most devastating moment in the film, and it's a perfect example of Trintignant investing Georges with an outstanding dichotomy of fear, anger, hope, desperation, and an unconditional love that is never facile or pleading.
Riva was asked to do more than any other actress this year and possibly in the last decade despite the fact that she's only been in six films since 1990. It may not seem particularly challenging to play the physical side of a condition such as a stroke, but to deteriorate through several physical ailments and still be recognizable as the same person absolutely is, and Riva never makes you doubt her for a second. A great number of actors get accolades for going nude in films, but I can't remember the last time someone let themselves be shown in such an unflattering light. This scene is a microcosm for the way Amour elicits emotion; there's an element of necessity that falls just short of taking away her dignity as Georges experiences her pain vicariously.
For many, the introduction of this film via the Oscars race will make this perhaps the best gateway into foreign film for the uninitiated since Pan's Labyrinth. Those tired of the hubris of most American films and looking for something emotionally and intellectually engaging will find their foil, while those who need to branch out from English language films will inexorably be drawn to one of the most decorated movies of the year. Amour is a film that defies superlatives. It's just perfect.
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