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Wednesday, February 20,2013

Between 'dear' and 'debacle'

Best Foreign Language nominee a brutally honest look at the end of life

by ALLAN I. ROSS
Life, obviously, doesn't come with an owner’s manual, but if it did, the film “Amour” would certainly make for a good final chapter — call it “What to Expect when You’re Expiring.” Unflinchingly frank in its discussion of mortality, dignity and, well, love, “Amour” should be required viewing for the human race. 

There isn’t a false note in Austrian writer/director Michael Haneke’s masterpiece of a picture; he has crafted a bleak, brutal look at what happens to the human body and mind at the end of life, and infused it with so much painful honesty you’ll walk out of the theater feeling raw — as if you’ve skinned your soul.   

“Amour” follows the downward spiral of Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), whose husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), tends to her after she suffers a debilitating stroke. By utilizing long, static camera shots and avoiding typical film flourishes such as a traditional musical score, Haneke creates a palpable, you-are-there feeling that makes it feel more like a play than a movie. It sears itself into your memory and dares you to look away. You have no choice but to empathize with these characters — you’re with with them non-stop, sharing their space, their home, their lives. 

“Things will go on,” Georges tells their daughter, when she asks how her mother is doing, “and then one day it will all be over.” A terser, truer summation of death cannot be found.  

Unapologetically named — “amour” is, of course, the French word for “love” — the film exemplifies that New Testament verse that gets trotted out at Christian weddings so often, describing all the things love is and isn’t: It’s patient, kind and rejoices in the truth; it’s not arrogant, envious or proud. And that’s what the movie is about — the real, powerful force that binds people together and elevates human life above just mere survival. Love, here, is more than an emotion. It’s the glue that holds this two-person universe together.  

“Amour” is punctuated by the major benchmarks in Anne’s physical and mental decline. The installation of the hospital bed into the bedroom. Learning how to maneuver an electric wheelchair. The first diaper. Each stage is painstakingly detailed with care and meticulousness. Watching Georges settle into his new routine as Anne’s makeshift hospice worker is heartbreaking in its simplicity. A scene where Georges has to learn how to lift Anne out of her wheelchair is as intimate and emotional as any love scene you’re liable to see. This is what will happen to all of us if we live long enough — but on which end will we be? 

One of the film’s recurring images is that of a pigeon trapped indoors, allowing for a full range of interpretations. Is Anne the pigeon, and if she is, what does it mean for Georges to set her free? And by setting it free, is he doing the right thing?  Maddeningly, brilliantly, Haneke avoids any easy answers. 

“Amour” will almost certainly win for Best Foreign Language Film at this Sunday’s 85th Annual Academy Awards — for which it’s also nominated for Best Picture — but Riva’s nominated performance for Best Actress makes her a solid dark horse contender in that category as well. She believably, heart-wrenchingly slips into an infantile state with all the grace an 86-year-old actress can muster. Trintignant, meanwhile, invests the character Georges with a world of nobility and tenderness; he never says it — he can’t — but you can see that the promise Georges makes to not allow Anne to ever have to go back to a hospital is killing him in a different way. 

We may not all get sick, suffer or even grow old, but we all die. Depressing? Sure, but until you acknowledge that fact, the film seems to say, it’s impossible to truly live.

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