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11.1.13

For Your Consideration: 'Amour'

The one thing that is most certain in life, that we will die, is also the thing for which most of us will not or cannot prepare. In his most recent film, Amour, Michael Haneke explores this most personal stage of life, as a devoted husband and wife, both retired music teachers, confront the inevitable end. Since The Piano Teacher in 2001, Haneke has had startling critical success as a filmmaker, winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes for his last two films, The White Ribbon (2009) and Amour (2012), making him one of only seven directors who have won that award twice. (Caché was favored to win the award in 2005 but did not.) His films are the sort likely to make audiences squirm in their seats, but while Amour has some of those typical Haneke moments of terror and disgust it is new territory in many ways, a portrait of the eponymous emotion in all its complexity.

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Schubert, Moments musicaux, D. 780 / Piano Sonata, D. 664, A. Tharaud
(2009)
Classical music features importantly in Haneke's stories -- although most of the film is starkly silent -- and the couple shown here, Anne and Georges (the names of many couples in Haneke's films), play the piano, listen to recordings of themselves, read a book about Nikolaus Harnoncourt. After the introduction of the film, the story opens at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, for a long, uninterrupted shot of the audience filing into their places, the lights darkening, and the gentle notes of Schubert emanating from a piano. We cut to the reception afterward, where the elderly couple meet and congratulate the performer, one Alexandre Tharaud, who turns out to have been Anne's student when he was young and does just fine as an actor here. He comes to their apartment for a visit, plays another Schubert piece for them there, and later sends them his new CD. After a particularly disturbing scene, the camera turns away from the story, focusing on a series of beautiful landscape paintings. The message seems clear, that one of the functions of art is to show beauty when life has none, because the worst parts of a person dying -- "None of that deserves to be seen," as one character puts it.

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Perhaps that is why Haneke, somewhat uncharacteristically, does not cut as mercilessly into the disturbing details of the story as he normally would. Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima mon amour), now in her 80s, gives a luminous performance as Anne, while Jean-Louis Trintignant is more incisive as the crusty, somewhat short-tempered husband, a role that recalls his embittered judge in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Trois couleurs: Rouge. Isabelle Huppert, a Haneke favorite, plays the couple's daughter, who pops in from time to time from her life as a traveling musician, along with her British husband, played by William Shimell (Copie conforme). Unfortunately, like many children, she is little help to her parents and even gets in their way in some respects. All of the performances are strong, especially those of Trintignant and Riva (while she has been honored with some awards buzz, he has not), who bring an entire world of a life lived together to vivid light (with excellent cinematography by Darius Khondji) almost entirely in the space of their well-appointd Parisian flat. It is Haneke's best film so far, because he has not gone to such lengths to repel his audience. That is not to say that watching it is not an uncomfortable experience, because it is, but it may indeed be the best film of the year.

This film opens today at Landmark's E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row.

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