By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
For a foreign film to pull down an Oscar nomination is a big deal, especially if the category is not only best foreign-language film, but best picture itself.
Only eight non-English-speaking foreign movies have snagged best picture nominations in the Academy Awards’ history, so this year’s “Amour” is in some limited company. The movie has also received nominations for best actress, best foreign-language film, and best director and screenplay for its Austrian filmmaker, Michael Haneke.
It’s a pleasure to report that the film deserves its accolades. If the intellectual Haneke has been a severe observer of life in his previous films (which include “Cache” and “The White Ribbon”), here he matches that rigorous outlook with the most human situation imaginable.
After a brief opening sequence, “Amour” takes place within a large Paris apartment. The long-married octogenarians that live here, Anne and Georges, have wrapped themselves in art and culture (she’s a classical piano teacher), and their home is full of tasteful decoration and books.
That seems important, because the coming of illness and infirmity is not tasteful or decorous, and this is what Anne and Georges must deal with after she suffers a stroke and her mobility becomes limited.
They are not ready for this, but who is? In the series of deliberately composed scenes, Haneke measures the denial, panic and sadness that attend Anne’s declining state.
The only other character of significance is their daughter, played with typical precision by French star Isabelle Huppert.
Although Haneke is extremely smart about which moments will illuminate this situation, he also relies on his actors, two veterans of international cinema dating to the 1950s, to bring their skill and presence. They are Emmanuelle Riva, who long ago starred in the groundbreaking film “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” and Jean-Louis Trintignant.
Riva is heartbreaking in the movie, and it’s entirely possible she could win the Oscar. But the larger role is Trintignant’s, and he is superb. The movie’s not interested in explaining the psychology of the couple based on great revelations, so Trintignant must quietly suggest the positive and negative attributes of his character’s past, all of which get expressed in Georges’ behavior in the present.
The role is a real career landmark for Trintignant, the compact star of “A Man and a Woman,” “My Night at Maud’s” and “The Conformist.” Coincidentally, he also acted in one of those other foreign films nominated for the best picture Oscar, the 1969 “Z.”
The situation described in “Amour” lends itself to sentimentality, yet it avoids that. Haneke’s temperament, so frosty in his other films, here keeps the film from finding easy answers or platitudes.
The movie’s called “Amour” for a reason. Haneke is asking us to examine love, that most exalted of human emotions (and most frequently trivialized movie subjects), and think about what it means. That our eyes fall on people who are weathered by experience and decidedly non-face-lifted is the first of the movie’s wonders.
“Amour” (four stars)
The multiple Oscar nominations for this film are well earned: a rigorous study of two Paris octogenarians (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) dealing with her sudden infirmity. The frosty manner of director Michael Haneke keeps the subject from falling into easy sentimentality or platitudes, although it remains a very emotional experience. In French, with English subtitles.
Rated: PG-13 for subject matter.
Showing: The Egyptian.