Thursday, December 20, 2012
OSCAR WATCH: Amour
Is it possible to love someone too much? That seems to be the question that Michael Haneke attempts to answer in his latest film "Amour". As its title suggests, this film is an exploration of love in the purest sense of the word. However, this isn't the fiery lustful love of youth that thrives on the good times. The love that is portrayed in this film is the type that endures years after the superficial physical attraction has passed. It's the kind of love that we describe in marriage vows all the time - for better or worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part. We usually mean it when we utter these words in the dizzy heights of a wedding, but we never really anticipate the hard times. In this film, we see a revelation of true love as a couple is tested by illness.
The plot follows Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), who are retired music teachers in their eighties. One day, Anne suffers a stroke that causes a downward spiral in her health and leads to the events of this film. If you think you may have seen this story before, think again. This isn't your usual romantic tear-jerker. Haneke provides no cinematic comforts in this one. There's no beautiful music, flashy camerawork, riveting monologues or showboating performances. Basically, he locks us in a house with an old married couple and forces us to watch the wife die. That may sound reductive, but if you know Haneke's work then you'll understand that this cold tone is his "bread and butter". There are no fanciful flashbacks here, he boldly dives headfirst into Anne's deterioration.
On the surface it sounds like a torturous experience, but thankfully there are other aspects at play here. Haneke provides brief moments of relief, through visits from family (mainly their daughter), a former student and other well-wishers. These scenes serve as an interesting way to add depth to the 2 main characters, as their conversations reveal their history and personality. They also provide evidence (considering the confined setting of the film) that the lead characters are indeed fully-functioning members of society and not anti-social grumpy old people. In particular, the visit of a successful former student brings such obvious joy to Anne that it seems to bring her some added life.
Another vital aspect to the film is the effect of Anne's pain on her husband. Thanks to the extraordinary performances of Riva and Trintignant, we get a sense of their deep connection without the need for any grand declarations of this love. They show a unique type of chemistry that comes from the selfless comfort of a lifetime of experiences together. Individually, Emmanuelle Riva stands out in her role. She runs the gamut of emotions and feelings that come with such a predicament. The screenplay gives her a lot to work with as she not only has to convey the debilitating pain of her condition, but also the humiliation of being pitied and being a burden to your loved ones.
That being said, Trintignant is equally impressive and is the main reason why this movie is so engaging. His quiet performance reveals a fascinating interpretation of passion that you don't see very often. Upon learning that his wife has fallen on bad health, his solemn but steadfast care for her is achingly real. To him, caring for her at home is a "no-brainer", it's simply his duty. Now this is where my opening question comes into play. As expected, Anne is enduring excruciating pain that leaves her in agony and feeling helpless. It's a situation that seems to require special professional care, but Georges is unable to accept this. As a result, he indirectly prolongs her suffering due to his unwavering quest to preserve her life, no matter how destitute she becomes. It almost seems cruel, but as you look into Trintignant's eyes and his delicate interactions with her, you understand where he's coming from. Theirs is a bond that is so firm that it feels unfathomable to purposefully go on living without the other. It's depressing to think about, but the film makes you realize that you would likely do the same if you were in his shoes.
Overall, this is a remarkable effort from Michael Haneke. It's not an "enjoyable" film and you can't necessarily call it "entertaining". What it is though, is a masterful example of cinematic art that imitates life. It may be too "real" for some, but that's what makes this uncompromising film so brilliant.
Every so often, a foreign language film makes a such a huge impact that it crosses over to serious Oscar consideration among the usual English-language fields of the major award categories. As the awards circuit has shown, "Amour" may turn out to be one of those films. It should already come into the Oscar ceremony with 1 nomination secured - Best Foreign Language Film, which it could very well win. The more interesting question though, is whether it will show up in some of the bigger categories. The most obvious possibility is Best Original Screenplay, where it should be able to find a spot like other Foreign Films have done before. Even though "Amour" a chamber piece, I actually feel like it's a more of a directing triumph than a writing showcase. It may not seem as distinct as other auteur styles (Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson), but the directing is just as meticulous. The mostly motionless visual framing and the dark, cold mood felt like very conscious directing choices to me. I doubt he'll get this nomination, but I think the Academy's directing branch will also notice this, putting him into the mix for Best Director.
Another strong possibility is in the Best Actress category, where Emmanuelle Riva could certainly pick up the first Oscar nomination in her lengthy career. The precursor awards haven't been as kind to her as initially anticipated, but she's certainly still in the race.
Finally, the most significant indicator of crossover success will be whether or not "Amour" is able to land a nod in "the main event". It's definitely a tough sell, as the film will prove challenging for some voters to sit through. However, the film has enough of a high profile to be a serious contender for a Best Picture nomination. All of these nominations could go either way, so we won't really know until the nominations are announced. I just hope that Academy voters will give this film the consideration it deserves.