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'Amour': True love
By Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies

Austrian director Michael Haneke has often been accused of casting a cold, even sadistic, eye on the characters who suffer through cruelly uncompromising films like "Funny Games," "The Piano Teacher," "Caché," and "The White Ribbon." That detached, clinical style, demanding, above all, that we watch and be implicated in what happens on-screen, informs "Amour" as well. What's new is Haneke's ineffable tenderness toward iconic actors Jean-Louis Trintignant, 82, and Emmanuelle Riva, 85, as their characters succumb to age, illness and death. A lesser director might descend to melodrama, cliché, bathos, Lifetime TV sentimentality, Big Scenes to sex up this kind of unglamorous subject matter. Haneke remains scrupulous and austere: emotionally, morally, aesthetically. A relentless and shattering masterwork, "Amour" breaks the heart but satisfies the soul.

Search: More on Michael Haneke | More on Emmanuelle Riva

A cultivated Parisian couple in their twilight years, Anne and Georges have "always coped," as Dad later tells a concerned but useless daughter (Isabelle Huppert). Former music teachers, they attend a concert by an outstanding protégé; a grand piano has pride of place in their cozy living room, filled with a lifetime of books, photographs, recorded music. When they return to their apartment after the concert, we watch the two move through familiar spaces, chatting in that companionable, half-heard way people do when they've lived together for years and years, "Did I mention that you look pretty tonight?" Georges inquires.

The familiar movie faces are eroded by age, but lost beauty lies just beneath the ruined flesh: Riva illuminating "Hiroshima, Mon Amour," Trintignant Judas-ing the woman he loves in "The Conformist." Both actors show their new masks to the camera sans embarrassment or apology. Intelligence, integrity and a striking sense of character present and accounted for dominate.

A movie called "Amour" suggests Gallic romance, infatuated couples luxuriating in each other's flesh, finding and losing the love of their lives. But Haneke's love story plays out on the other side of youthful ardor. A new kind of passion, more associated with the stations of the cross, begins when lively, gray-haired Anne sits down across from Georges at the breakfast table and is suddenly, totally ... not there. The metaphor for love is often coup de foudre, but this sudden stroke is the start of Anne's slow, unbearable devolution from beloved, engaged woman into helpless, paralyzed "thing."

They are so civilized, these two, remaining courteous and kind through the increasingly awful horrors and humiliations of Anne's decline. Early on, Georges comes home early to find her fallen on the floor under an open window in their foyer. Her aim is not to inflict her erasure as a human being on either of them; nor does she relish being a drooling "spectacle" for well-wishers. But Georges chooses to care for his wife faithfully and matter-of-factly -- lifting her on to the toilet, cutting up her food, exercising her legs, and then, as she becomes more vegetal, changing diapers, living with nonstop moaning, thrusting food and water between clenched lips.

Anne's features become more and more distorted, bereft of any semblance to the woman she was. Once, stressed beyond bearing, Georges slaps his wife; her features contort and freeze into a kabuki mask of sheer horror. It's so out of character, such a sign of barbarity on the part of a gentle man, the act presages monstrous collapse.

Though I necessarily dwell on ugly matters, "Amour" is primarily a testament to love-making that persists even after one's object of desire ceases to be human. Fidelity gaunts Trintignant, as he soothes his restless charge through the night with tales from childhood and negotiates his way about the apartment on stiffened legs. Georges tends to Anne's needs, every one.

During "Amour," we become intimately acquainted with all the rooms in the couple's spacious apartment, the foyer where Anne learns to work her wheelchair and Georges "rescues" a pigeon, the living room where Anne and Georges visit with a youthful protégé and read companionably together in a spill of golden lamplight, the bathroom where a nurse scrubs down Anne's vulnerably naked body, the little kitchen where she first "disappeared" -- and where one evening before she left for good, Anne leafed through a photo album and declared, "C'est belle ... la vie."

These spaces have been so richly and tangibly inhabited, it comes as a shock when Haneke's camera wanders through their dim emptiness. All of the detritus and memorabilia of beautiful life remains, but there is a void where two valuable, idiosyncratic lovers once spoke and made music. When their tomb is opened, only the odor of decay signifies they once existed. But Michael Haneke's lacerating and compassionate "Amour" is all the resurrection Georges and Anne, the magnificent Trintignant and Riva -- or we -- will ever need.

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Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.

 

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