Friday, December 21, 2012

7 Reasons Why Death Breathes Life Into "Amour"

1. La puissance de l'amour "A lot of rubbish is talked about love. You know what real love is? It's wiping someone's arse or changing the sheets when they've wet themselves and letting them keep their dignity so you could both go on." So says Mrs. Elton (Ann Mitchell) to Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz) near the end of another movie, The Deep Blue Sea. I kept thinking about that as I watched Amour. The word, in any tongue, certainly would apply to the driving force behind the French-language film's elderly male protagonist Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), who must become caretaker to his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) after she suffers a series of strokes. Here are a few others: dedication, devotion, loyalty, persistence, determination -- all by-products of love's power.

2. Emmanuelle Riva She's highly regarded in her native France and has been for more than five decades, but the only other time I can recall seeing her onscreen was when she played Juliette Binoche's Alzheimer's-stricken mother in Trois Couleurs: Bleu. As Anne, Riva has the difficult task of embodying a character whose body is slowly giving out, to the point where the only sounds she can make are primal, guttural yelps. That description may sound over the top, but Riva actually offers a quiet detailed performance, saving the histrionics for when they really count.

3. Jean-Louis Trintignant It's a shame that Trintignant, the French veteran who, like Riva, appeared in Krzysztof Kieślowski's Trois Couleurs trilogy (as the retired judge in Trois Couleurs: Rouge), has been mostly overlooked by all the critics groups and Oscar prognosticators. As wonderful as Riva is, Amour would never do without Trintignant, who is in nearly every scene, strong and solid for Anne, like a lovers rock, but slowly crumbling, inside and out. Though I've never been anyone's caretaker, Trintignant made it easy to empathize with Georges' emotional response to his situation, that complex mix of fear, anger, shame, uncertainty and true-blue amour.

And kudos to Trintignant for not playing him like some kind of selfless angel. At one point, looking back on their many years together, Anne describes him as a monster who was also a nice man, and indeed, Georges' demeanor vacillates between warm and tender and cranky and brusque. But even at his most brutal, the deep love he has for his wife is always apparent.

4. Isabelle Huppert Another one of my Gallic goddesses, Huppert, who collaborated with Amour director Michael Haneke in 2001's La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher), makes so much out of a small role. Watching her, I found myself hoping that Haneke's next film picks up where this one ends and gives us a fuller portrait of Eva and her seemingly unhappy marriage to Englishman Geoff. L'opposé d'amour? 

5. Its complicated familial relationships Amour focuses on the present without explicitly giving us any back story, but it does help us fill in some of the blanks. It's obvious that Anne and Georges' marriage hasn't been all sunshine and happiness, and their relationship with Eva appears to be strained. The family dynamic reminded me of the one in About Schmidt, only much darker. During the initial scene with Eva and Georges, Eva at first seems so detached from her mother's condition -- I assumed she was just a casual family friend. It's not until late in the conversation that Georges' words reveal the actual family connection. Eva later shows her love, but always with a hint emotional detachment, which is echoed in the way Anne reacts to her. It might be her medical condition, but I suspect it goes much deeper than that.

6. The sound of silence For a film featuring two protagonists who are piano teachers, there's surprisingly little music in Amour, which actually works in its favor. Some of the most effective scenes are the still, quiet ones with long-view shots in which the camera holds an image for an uncomfortably extended period of time as absolutely nothing plays in the background.

7. The beauty of parallelism and symbolism The scenes with the birds didn't make complete sense to me until the end when Georges is writing a letter describing how he finally caught the pigeon and let him go. The pigeon represents Anne. It's trapped in the house, the way Anne is trapped in her no-longer-functioning body. What Georges does with the blanket to the bird is pretty much what he does with a pillow, setting both scene partners free.

Also Georges' final scene, an imaginary sequence in which he follows Anne out of the house, at first without his jacket on, turning out the light but not closing the door, was like a happy ending to a sad one. It's a symbolic conclusion to a life, to a love, that in reality was messy and sometimes painful but still beautiful.

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