Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 22, 2013)
Of the nine Oscar Best Picture nominees from 2012, two seemed pretty obscure to most American movie-goers: Beasts of the Southern Wild and Amour. The latter maintained the lowest profile of the bunch, as the French import made a mere $6 million in the US – and virtually all of that came as a direct result of its Oscar attention.
We meet Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly, long-married pair of retired piano teachers. They live in a nice Paris apartment and seem to enjoy their senior years – until Anne starts to lose her faculties. One morning at breakfast, Georges finds Anne completely unresponsive; she simply stares ahead with no recognition of the world around her. After a few minutes, she snaps out of this spell with no memory of it.
This leads to surgery to alleviate future incidents, but it doesn’t succeed and Anne ends up physically hobbled and infirm. She returns home so Georges can care for her, though she adds one demand: that he never send her back to the hospital. We watch their mutual path through her deteriorating condition and the changes this brings to their relationship.
Given that I’ve been writing reviews for nearly 15 years and have somewhere around 5000 under my belt, my preferences are available for the world to see. That means that I can’t deny films such as Amour aren’t my standard cup of tea. While I try to expand my horizons – and have watched hundreds of movies outside of my standard preferences – I must admit I went into Amour without much enthusiasm. If it hadn’t received so much awards attention, this review wouldn’t exist.
Given all that trepidation, I must regard Amour as a pleasant surprise. Actually, it probably shouldn’t qualify as a “surprise” that I feel impressed by a movie that received so many plaudits, but I still didn’t expect to care for the film, so the fact it made a positive impact on me counts as unanticipated.
Unless it comes from Woody Allen, a film about love and death usually will become manipulative and schmaltzy. Those factors never enter the extremely restrained Amour.
Indeed, I think one would be hard-pressed to find a more subdued film of any genre, as Amour remains resolutely understated. In this era of hyperactive camerawork, the image seems remarkably still, and that gives the movie an interesting observational feel. Many directors believe that bouncy “shakycam” adds a documentary impression, but the opposite becomes true; the jarring visuals distract us and take us out of the stories.
In Amour, the camera often stays stationary: it gets plopped in one spot and we follow events from there. This doesn’t mean stagnant visuals, and it doesn’t connote lazy cinematography.
Instead, director Michael Hanneke wants to avoid any images that heavily call attention to themselves, as he prefers to let the characters and events dominate. This works well, as the images permit us to observe the situations without overt cinematic editorializing.
On the negative side, one might occasionally feel like nothing happens in Amour. To say the least, the tale moves slowly, and it sometimes seems like we’ll never see anything notable occur.
While that can be frustrating at times, I understand the point. The slowness of the pacing lets us invest in the characters and become more involved when circumstances do change. We watch two lives unfold without obvious attempts to stick us with a forced narrative; again, this might make one tempted to press the fast-forward button, but it serves a cinematic purpose.
I really do appreciate the objective sensibility on display, as it’s nice to find a film that doesn’t tell us what to think or feel. Amour lacks a score, and that acts as a smart decision. Inevitably, music would color emotions, whereas the movie wants us to come to our feelings on our own. Given how easily this could’ve turned into a mopey sob-fest, the absence of editorial intrusion becomes appreciated.
Expect strong performances from the leads. Trintignant gets the more thankless role of the two, as he needs to be calm and stable throughout the film. While he doesn’t get much chance to emote, Trintignant delivers a turn that lets us understand and empathize with Georges, and his understated choices make him all the more effective.
Riva clearly takes on the part that requires the most obvious “acting” because Anne goes through so many alterations, both physical and mental. While virtually all of Georges’ changes focus inwards, Anne becomes a truly different person by the end; it feels like she ages 30 years by the time the flick finishes.
Like her co-lead, Riva resists any temptations to overact and push schmaltzy buttons. That may be even more remarkable given how easily she could’ve hammed it up; I suspect most actors would pound on those emotional beats as hard as they could. Riva demonstrates Anne’s changes in a natural way that lets us follow her deterioration in a powerful way.
Even with – or perhaps because of – the film’s understated nature, it packs a pretty strong punch when Anne dies. That’s not a spoiler; the film opens with the discovery of her corpse, and I don’t think it takes much effort to guess that we’ll find this outcome anyway. Despite all our foreknowledge, her passing hits home, as does our time with Georges after her death.
So chalk up Amour as a much more involving than expected drama. It might be dark and depressing, but it delivers a fulfilling tale of love and relationships that works much better than most in its genre.