Amour the Best Film of 2012 (But Won't Be so Honored)

Not a Hollywood film so it won't win Best Picture, but count it among the greatest achievements in cinematic history.  

AMOUR (2012)
Directed by Michael Haneke
Les Films du Losange, PG-13, 127 minutes, in French with subtitles
* * * * *

Here’s what happens in the Oscar-nominated Amour: a woman in her 80s dies. That’s it–no guns, no fast cars, and no dazzling special effects. And, yet, it’s easily the best film of 2012–though it has no chance of winning that category–and it’s not too early to apply the term “classic” and rank it among the better films of all time.  (For the record, director Michael Haneke’s 2009 film The White Ribbon also belongs in that category.)

The film is essentially a pas de deux between Georges (Jean-Louis Trintingant) and Anne (Emmanuel Riva), elderly, married, haute bourgeois soul mates that have shared decades of music, teaching, books, art collecting, and mutual aloofness. When Anne blacks out after a glorious recital by her former pupil Alexandre (Alexandre Tharaud), the couple is faced with the reality that Anne is dying. It is here that amour (love) meets its ultimate test. What would you do for the one you love most when the Grim Reaper beckons? The film raises all manner of questions we spend our lives ignoring. When do we hold on, and when do we say goodbye? What will we endure for a few more moments? How do we judge when the line is crossed between tolerance and intolerance? How much care can even the most loving caregiver provide before the giver snaps? Is that person honor-bound to respect the wishes of the dying? How much is the receiver willing to accept? When does the loss of personal dignity become so repugnant that death becomes merciful? Georges quickly learns that there are no easy answers to those questions, and that the only guidelines are internal and instinctive. When daughter Eva (Isabelle Hupert) shows up to ask “serious” questions about what to do, Georges abruptly dismisses her.” What sort of serious discussion do you wish to have?” he demands. Eva has no answer; her own life is as complicated as most are midstream–financial woes, a rocky marriage, career worries, self-absorption….  Georges’ retort sharply slices through the nostrums and makes Eva confront truth.

If you get the idea that this film is depressing, you’re right. But it’s also many other things: touching and tragic, wise and helpless, shocking and poignant, funny and gut-wrenchingly sad. Does this sound contradictory? Isn’t the life cycle equally so? We are born without awareness and in a state of total dependency, and in such a state many of us leave this mortal coil. The biggest difference is that in between we develop selfhood and definite opinions about how that self should be treated.

Many North Americans will avoid this film like the plague. Not only is its subject a downer, its pacing is glacial. Georges and Anne are essentially prisoners on death row awaiting a sickle-bearing warden. They sit in the stillness of the den, inch along the silence of the foyer, and sit almost wordlessly at the table. There is one numbingly beautiful shot of Anne on her side in bed wearing a pale blue night gown; were it not for her occasional blinking, it could be a still-life titled Odalisque at 80. Another astonishing moment occurs during Georges’ slow-motion attempt to trap and release a pigeon that has gotten into the apartment–almost certainly a metaphor for the soul’s release. These are among numerous moments in which director Haneke forces his audiences to slow down and be aware of time’s passage. Kudos go also to veteran actors Trintignant and Riva. Few actors convey ennui as convincingly as Trintignat–his performance in Trois Coleurs: Rouge ranks among the finest in cinematic history­–but for once he is upstaged. Emmanuel Riva won’t win the Oscar either, but it would be fair to say that there is more emotion, passion, and anger in her eyebrows than her Oscar contenders could muster in a dozen overwrought soliloquies. She is a veritable shape shifter whom we witness transformed from a handsome older woman into a barely breathing sack of bones. Toward the end, her performance is mime elevated to heights not seen since the passing of Marcel Marceau.

Let me reiterate: this is not an American-style movie; it’s a European film. Amour demands patience, but its rewards are–dare I say it?–eternal. It should be required viewing for every erstwhile moralist that opposes doctor-assisted suicide. It also gives a twist and substance to the New Testament passage: “Greater love hath no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”     --Rob Weir

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