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.
There is no indignity of age or illness that the couple doesn't suffer through together: Georges hauls Anne on and off the toilet, later learns to change her diapers, spoons baby cereal into her mouth and coaxes her to drink from a sippy cup.
As Anne loses her speech, Riva earns her Academy Award nod by conveying every humiliation with her eyes and limited body language. Trintignant should have received an Oscar nomination of his own, since he effectively emits a helpless agony his character rarely verbalizes.
The sicker Anne becomes, the more apparent it becomes that Haneke isn't abandoning his usual funny games. In our death-dreading Western culture, he deserves credit for unsentimentally and unflinchingly depicting the ugly realities of growing old and dealing with terminal illness.
Yes, there is value in fixing an unblinking gaze in the places where our worst fears dwell, but as usual, Haneke seems intent of punishing his audience. The filmmaker just keeps lingering on and revisiting one of the most painful human experiences to the point of tormenting the viewer. The film's pace deliberately drags; 127 minutes is a long time to watch someone die — and to watch the person she loves most lose his life, too.
For anyone who has experienced even at a distance the loss of a parent, grandparent or other loved one to a long illness, “Amour” is practically torture.
There are a few instructive moments: Anne's now-famous former piano student (Alexandre Tharaud) can't conceal his horror at her condition or stop asking her questions about what happened to her; a home-health nurse (Dinara Drukarova) tends her patient with an almost mocking callousness and then curses Georges when he fires her; and the couple's daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) continually confronts her father, insisting there must be something they can DO for her mother.
In the end, Haneke's “Amour” is less about love than about loss, depicted as painfully as possible.
— Brandy McDonnell
Starring: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert. (Mature thematic material including a disturbing act, and for brief language)