Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Review: "Amour"

Please take note of the photo I chose to accompany this film review. The best available images I could find showed the same moment from "Amour" from different angles, with Jean-Louis Trintignant caressing the face of Emmanuelle Riva. The most popular image showed the face of Riva, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance, from over Trintignan's shoulder.

I specifically opted for the reverse angle, where we see Trintignan's face and not Riva's, to demonstrate what I think is a fallacy about the tremendous reception given to "Amour." To wit: Trintignant is the star, not Riva. And it is his performance critics and groups like the Academy Awards should be spotlighting, not hers.

I have not been shy about suggesting that I believe Riva and Quvenzhané Wallis from "Beasts of the Southern Wild" were nominated simply so the Academy could have a talking point about "the youngest and the oldest Best Actress nominees ever." Wallis did not deserve a nomination because hers was the performance of a talented 6-year-old, based on behavior, not craftsmanship.

For Riva, the answer is even simpler: hers is not even a leading performance, it is a supporting one.

As Anne Laurent, an elderly French woman slowly dissolving into dementia, Riva essentially acts for 25 minutes, and then slides into the figurative background. She is nearly mute and motionless for the last half of the movie, while the entire story is seen through the eyes of her husband Georges (Trintignant).

Look at the film, written and directed by Michael Haneke, from the perspective of grammar: Anne is the object of the narrative, while Georges is the subject. He acts upon her, while she is largely acted upon.

If one were to come up with a one-sentence summary of "Amour," it would not be, "A French woman succumbs to dementia and is cared for by her husband." It would be, "An elderly French man struggles to cope with the emotional and spiritual burden of caring for his ailing wife."

I say this not in an attempt to diminish the work by Riva, which is indeed quite good, but to simply place it in its proper perspective. The movie belongs to Trintignan, first and last.

Not surprisingly, I had a similar reaction to a Canadian movie with a similar theme from a few years ago, "Away From Her." In a bit of repeated history, that film also saw the female lead nominated for an Oscar while the male lead was ignored. I have persistently, if unsuccessfully, lobbied that that film's title should be corrected to "Away From Him."

"Amour" is a lovely piece of filmmaking, with all-around terrific acting. Isabelle Huppert also has a small role as their daughter Eva, who is middle-aged and busy, and treats her mother's illness as a tremendous inconvenience, without ever being nasty about it.

But is it deserving of all its many accolades, including winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes and an unexpected raft of Oscar nominations? I would say not.

"Amour" is wonderfully made but terribly unoriginal. We have seen variations of this story so many times before, it's hard not to think about those other, superior films while watching it. In my cattier moments, I have taken to referring to the film as "My Old, Paralyzed Left Foot" and "Million Franc Baby." ("Away From Him, With Subtitles" is a new one that comes to mind.)

I will not deny that "Amour" is a worthwhile cinematic experience, and the often negative tone of this review may mislead you into thinking I am not recommending it. I am.

But for all the myriad honors and awards that have been bestowed on "Amour," I truly believe it is most deserving of one more: Most Overrated Film of the Year.

3 stars out of four

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