The rumors of filmmaker Michael Haneke developing a warmer, gentler side with his latest film are somewhat proven but greatly exaggerated with “Amour.”
The austere Austrian auteur's tragic tale of aging and mortality will contend for five Oscars — best picture, best foreign language film, best director, best original screenplay and best actress for Emmanuelle Riva — when the 85th Academy Awards are handed out Feb. 24.
The Oscar nominations aren't the only high praise Haneke has received for “Amour.” Since the film won the prestigious Palme d'Or at last May's Cannes Film Festival, critics have been hailing it as a surprisingly sympathetic drama from the filmmaker notorious for his cold, borderline brutal way of portraying the dehumanizing cruelties people too often inflict on each other.
With “Amour,” Haneke, 70, instead explores the dehumanizing effect that old age has on people. While he incorporates a few hopeful moments absent from much of his previous work, this is the same writer/director that made “Funny Games” and “The White Ribbon,” and he hasn't changed all that much. For instance, the title, French for “love,” appears just as a corpse of one of the principal characters is hauled away.
Much of the movie's newfound warmth seems to emanate from the sensitive, soul-baring lead turns Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant give as a long-married couple coping with a ruinous illness.
Both retired music teachers in their 80s, Anne and Georges are a cultured, well-to-do Parisian couple still quietly, companionably in love. One day, Anne eerily spaces out for a few minutes, but that moment turns out to be life-changer: She has suffered a stroke.
Haneke confines almost the entire film to the couple's finely outfitted apartment, skipping the stark hospital scenes and grim doctor's speeches so common in these types of films. But it quickly becomes clear that a surgery to help Anne has failed, and she is confined to a wheelchair and paralyzed on the right side of her body.
Anne makes her husband promise that she will not be hospitalized again. The once-vibrant woman's health declines steadily and inexorably but not quickly, and caring for his increasingly infirm wife takes a horrific toll on Georges.
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Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert. (Mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language)