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Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: Amour

The films of Michael Haneke are challenges. They challenge the audience into tapping into raw emotions and nerves that most films would hesitate to approach. They are generally sparse experiences that can even test an audience's patience depending upon the viewer, but they are always rich thematically and are generally amongst the highlights of films that are released that year. My first experience with Haneke was getting a chance to see The White Ribbon (winner of the Palme d'Or of the 2010 Cannes Film Festival), it was a work that left Hannah and I talking about it for an hour or so after we left the theater, it was so powerful in its messaging. This year brings us Amour, also a winner of Palme d'Or for 2012 respectively, and a film that is topping many a critic's Top 10 list for the year. It may be the most horrifying film I've had the pleasure to watch.

Amour focuses on an elderly married couple Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anna (Emmanuelle Riva) who are living a comfortable life as retired music teachers. In the midst of breakfast one morning, Anna suffers a mild stroke and Georges takes her to see a doctor where it is revealed she must have surgery to open up an artery. This surgery is unsuccessful as it leaves Anna's right side paralyzed. Georges, playing the role of the carepartner, is adamant that he will not place Anna in a nursing home and the film details both of their struggles with the encroaching mortality that creeps into the lives of us all. These despondent moments are intensified with Anna suffers another, much more severe stroke, that completely wipes away her ability to communicate and ambulate, as well as possibly her cognitive functioning. The internal battle faced by Georges makes up the majority of the latter half of the film.

When watching the first 20 minutes or so of the film, Hannah mentioned to me, "This is like the the first ten minutes of 'Up' stretched into an entire film". I'm not sure a more apt comparison could be made. While I found Up to be a charming if very slight film, the emotional pull of its initial intro was by far the most compelling segment it offered. To have such exposed emotional content expanded into a 2 hour film is an overwhelming experience to say the least. It's difficult to watch a film that reminds of us just how fragile and fleeting life truly is. I can imagine that audience members, when viewing Amour, will draw comparisons to their own experiences be it related to grandparents, parents or themselves. I can only speak for myself when I say, that is exactly how it affected me.

For his part, Haneke could have easily wrung this material in a very melodramatic, The Notebook-like fashion, certainly for a lesser film-maker this temptation would be the easy way out. But for those unfamilar with Haneke's work, Amour is very much in line with the rest of his filmography. Amour is incredibly still and sparing with its dialogue. At times, the films creates an atmosphere of voyeurism into the life of this slowly fraying couple the realism is so heightened. Haneke uses limited multi-camera angles to increase this feeling of   versimilutude. Often, he will place a camera in one position and allow the actors to do all the heavy lifting of the script. Often actors will walk outside of the camera's frame of reference with dialogue still occurring yet the camera never changes its angle. This type of filmmaking is refreshing in an industry where the "long take" is quickly becoming extinct for the ADD style of shooting that has become so prevalent. Another positive aspect is the film's utter silence, even through its opening credits, there is no score beyond didactic music played over a stereo on occasion or when one of their former students plays piano for them in a given scene.

While the actors will be unfamiliar to most American audiences as they are veterans of French cinema, Trintignant and Riva give two of the best performances of the year. From the beginning of the film when she is so full of September-life to the point where she can barely speak and cannot lift her head from her pillow, Riva gives the most revelatory fulfillment of this type of role that I could ever imagine. During the deterioration of her physical state, Riva becomes unrecognizable from the person you see in the film's opening act. Tritignant, gives a slightly quieter, yet not less effective performance as the husband who is faced with the ever growing possibility of losing the woman he loves, and learning that the person he knew is truly no longer there even before death. There's a particularly heart-breaking scene where you see Anna suddenly playing piano again with Georges looking on, only to realize that its his imagination at work while listening to an album. There are moments where we learn that perhaps Georges wasn't always the greatest of husbands or fathers, but faced with this new challenge, his dedication to Anna is apparent, making for an incredibly rich development of character. Arguably, the motif of the film lies within the character of Georges, and Tritignant absolutely nails every moment of it. There are additional actors that give small supporting work, including Isabelle Huppert as their daughter Eva, but the film centers on and belongs to these two actors.

One of the central truths of life is that someday it will eventually end, this is particularly heartbreaking when you have dedicated so much of your life to one person in the name of love and you face the ever-eventual end. With the title Amour, Haneke has specifically chosen a title that focuses the theme of what love in old age means, even if it means force-feeding your loved one so they can make it through another day or hiring an in-home nurse to ensure that you can continue to spend every day together, or making the toughest decision imaginable. Amour is a difficult film to watch, but is also very touching and transfixing. It isn't a perfect film, as it runs just slightly overlong in some scenes, but its importance remains. Years from now, I feel like Amour will be the work of cinema that I will reflect on the most.

I give it 3.5 out of 4 stars (or an A if you prefer).

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