04 January, 2013

Savannah: "Amour" (****½)

Emmanuelle Riva stars in "Amour"

Having worked in film and television for over four decades, Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke only really began to solidify his status as a force in modern cinema in 2001, when "The Piano Teacher" won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Without discounting his early efforts, Haneke has given us some of the most subtly beautiful and unsettling films of the last decade. Cannes showed him some love again in 2005, awarding him the Best Director Award for "Cache." He went on to take the Palme d'Or in both 2009 for "The White Ribbon" and in 2012 for "Amour."

"Amour" certainly marks no departure from Haneke's bleak, windswept approach to storytelling. There is much warmth to be found, however, in the work of the film's stars, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva. The venerable duo are simply amazing; a display of poise and dedication at a level rarely achieved on film. Trintignant, who I'm afraid has been left in Riva's shadow by many critics, carries the film as he tenderly cares for his ailing wife with hardly an ounce of ire (and seldom removing his enormous, clunky boots). Riva swings full force from your heart strings as you watch her struggle through the aftermath of a stroke. These two are masters at their craft. As Anne (Riva) deteriorates, the burden on Georges (Trintignant) only grows, bubbling inside of him. Isabelle Huppert is a welcome presence as their daughter, but has limited screen time.

Haneke and his director of photography, Darius Khondji, keep the camera mostly stationary for long, scene-length shots. While this is typical of many of his films, you don't ever leave the home of Georges and Anne, aside from the opening frames and one brief dream sequence in the hallway. A feeling of claustrophobia sets in, but it is a beautiful home to be trapped in (for a couple of hours, at least). The apartment is adorned with the earthy browns and tans of a well-stocked library, looking exactly like it belongs to this pair of saintly Parisian musicians.

"Amour" is a solemn wonder until absolutely the right moments when it intends not to be. Most movies couldn't get by with such a pivotal scene being an old man trying to catch a pigeon with a blanket; it works marvelously here. Thankfully, the film's biggest moments do not succumb to Haneke overreaching for shock value, although I'm not certain a mainstream audience would see it that way. But "Amour" wasn't made to pack multiplexes on Christmas Day, was it?

Michael Haneke, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva make sure "Amour" possesses all the class and elegance of a grand piano. I'm sure Haneke has a lot of filmmaking left in him, but it's wonderful to see these two French legends so hard at work late into the evening of their careers.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

"Amour" played at the 2012 Savannah Film Festival and should hit Georgia screens sometime in January after what I expect to be a robust showing on Oscar nomination morning.

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