Niagara Gazette

February 5, 2013

CALLERI: Oscar nominee Emmanuelle Riva shines in 'Amour'

By Michael Calleri
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — Truly great movies are rare. "Amour" is one of those rarities. It is an extraordinary experience that focuses on issues almost everyone will face. It is a film about old age and memories of being young. It is a work of art in the classic meaning of the word, and it is also a beautiful entertainment.

George and Anne are married and devoted to each other. Now in their 80s, they live a comfortable life in one of those classic book-lined Paris apartments. They are retired music teachers who enjoy going to concerts and sharing quiet moments reading to each other. As we will see, theirs was a sunny existence.

The movie opens with an abrupt act. The police break into an apartment. They find Anne's decomposing body beautifully laid-out on a bed. She is in a lovely dress with her hands holding flowers. Within moments, we are back in time, watching an elderly couple in seeming good health taking in a piano recital.

The man and woman are played by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, two of France's greatest film stars. Many in the audience at "Amour" will remember them as young and attractive. They are still attractive, but they are no longer young. Riva will be 86 on Feb. 24, the day she finds out if she will receive an Academy Award for her performance as Anne. Trintignant turned 82 last Dec. 11. He was not nominated for an Oscar for playing George, but he should have been. To watch them is to sit before a master's class in acting. They both deliver quiet and majestic performances. If you know their work, it is like revisiting old friends. The movie becomes very personal.

The morning after the recital, at which the couple had watched one of their most important students, Alexandre (played by real-life pianist Alexandre Tharaud), they are home. At the breakfast table, Anne tunes out for a while. Just as quickly, she returns to normal, or what we think is normal. But she has had a stroke, and we discover that she is paralyzed on one side. Her mind is fine. She is as smart and charming and witty as ever, but she is changing physically. George will have to lift her from a chair and help her in the bathroom and feed her. He will soon have to read to her, as she physically and mentally disintegrates before our eyes. Riva's acting is breathtaking for the economy of its style. As George is affected emotionally by the decline of his wife, so, too, is the audience. Only the most stoic will not be moved by what occurs. "Amour" is about something that tears apart both loved ones. That time when the end of a spouse's life is near, but the person struggles on.

Too many filmmakers treat the elderly with appalling disrespect. The old are depicted as crude caricatures or comic buffoons. Not screenwriter-director Michael Haneke, whose outstanding movie this is. He shatters what has been an accepted cinematic notion of aging and sickness, showing us what has long been ignored in movies: illness isn't always dramatic. The end sometimes comes slowly, with loved ones holding onto memories of sweeter times, compelled to make decisions that shatter illusions of control.

Haneke, Riva, and Trintignant show us that an intelligent and vibrant person becoming helpless when old is just as heart-wrenching an experience as if the person were young. It is an indignity. Sad and discomforting and melancholy.

"Amour" also touches on what adult children will face when their elderly parents slowly begin to fade. George and Anne have a daughter, Eva, who lives away from Paris. Isabelle Huppert, another great French film star, brings a wealth of experience to her role as a woman worried about both her mother and father. She doesn’t see the passage of time as something inevitable. She wants to know the reasons for her mother's condition and fixates on that. She needs to find fault, to blame someone. You want her to consider her father's feelings, too. He has decided to care for Anne, a decision that will weigh heavily on his own physical and emotional well-being.

The superbly acted “Amour” is effective on many levels. It shows being old not as a disease, but as one of the stages of life. Darius Khondji’s starkly beautiful cinematography emphasizes the colors of the autumn of one’s life.

Riva and Trintignant play characters who remember great joy and experience newfound sorrow. When Anne is nearly mute and suffering in pain, you can see her thoughts dance in her eyes. These two great French stars remind us not only of their characters’ past but also of their own history. Few movies do this. “Amour” is unforgettable.

Michael Calleri reviews films for Night and Day. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.