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Telluride 2012: Haneke's 'Amour' Proves All You Need Is 'Love' (And a Lot of Hankies)

Michael Haneke's drama won the Palme d'Or at May's Cannes Film Festival and was easily the most highly-anticipated film at this month's Telluride Film Festival.

Amour

TELLURIDE, Colo. -- Michael Haneke's French-language drama Amour (Love), a heartbreaking film that chronicles the final chapter of an octogenarian couple's long marriage, had its first North American screenings here at the Telluride Film Festival on Friday and Saturday, and -- thanks to frighteningly believable performances by European film vets 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva and 82-year-old Jean-Louis Trintignant -- left many festivalgoers in tears. (The film had its world premiere back in May at Cannes, where it received a seven-minute ovation and won the Palme d'Or. Of the films playing at Telluride, it was easily the most highly-anticipated.)

Awards prospects for the film, which Sony Pictures Classics is releasing in the U.S., will largely depend on whether Academy members -- many of whom are roughly the same age as this film's protagnists -- will elect to embrace or run in the opposite direction from one of the few films that has ever managed to paint an honest picture of old age, or even tried to.

When I interviewed Meryl Streep last year in conjunction with The Iron Lady, and asked her what she hoped people would come away from that film doing differently, her answer was -- I'm paraphrasing -- that, the next time they sat down on a subway across from an old woman, they would remember that behind all of her wrinkles lies a lifetime of experiences -- love, loss, joy, sadness. In other words, to not forget that elderly people are humans who matter, too, which is something that our youth-centric society often tends to forget. If ever a film has illustrated Streep's point, it is Amour.

Amour begins in a symbolically-significant way: with a shot of a theater audience watching a piano concert, with no guidance of who in the theater audience the movie audience should focus on. Shortly thereafter, the focus becomes an elderly couple that had been in attendance. I think the point is clear: these two people, who easily blend into a crowd, could be any one of us when we reach their age; in fact, we should hope that we are so lucky, in that, even at that age, they remain very loving towards each other, interested in being around each other, and in possession of a genuine joie de vivre, as demonstrated by their shared love of soaring classical music.

The next scene features a shot of the woman lying dead in her bed surrounded by flower petals, which, of course, begs the question of what led up to her death. (It's the same device that was most famously employed in Sunset Blvd.) That, of course, is the focus of the rest of the film, about which I will reveal no more.

Amour's story is not an unfamiliar one for most people -- indeed, who among us has not watched a loved one grow old, lose full command of body and/or mind, develop a sense of guilt and depression about becoming a burden to others, and eventually wither away and die? But what makes this film so haunting, in spite of that, is that it enables us to watch all of that unfold over the course of less than two hours, and through performances that are so convincing that you leave the theater wanting to Google the actors' to make sure that they are, in fact, still alive. (They are.)

The film begs us to ponder those most fundamental of questions: What makes life worth living? At what point, if any, is dying a more preferable option? And, ultimately, would you rather live to be very old and deal with all that doing so entails (the loss of friends, loved ones, and faculties), or die at a younger age but in fuller command of your life? This debate is encapsulated in the shortest of exchanges between the couple as they peruse an old photo album: "It's beautiful." / "What?" / "Life. [pauses] So long."

As was stated in a far different context in the best picture Oscar winner No Country for Old Men, "You can't stop what's coming." Or can you?

My hunch is that, despite its universally strong reviews, Amour will prove to be too much to handle for many members of the Academy -- movies about old people always have been, from Leo McCarey's Make Way for Tomorrow (1937) through Tamara Jenkins's The Savages (2007) -- and it will struggle to provoke the sort of enthusiasm and passion that results in number one votes on Oscar nomination ballots, which are now required to secure a best picture Oscar nomination.

But acting noms may well prove to be a different story, especially for two actors whose collective résumés include such landmark films as ...And God Created Woman (1956), Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), A Man and a Woman (1966), Z (1969), and The Conformist (1970) -- but zero prior Oscar nominations. Many people will want to acknowledge not only their performances in this film and their courage in undertaking it (Trintignant came out of a 14-year retirement to play his part), but their overall bodies of work, as well.

The best actor race is extremely crowded this year, so Trintignant might miss out to bigger names who are up for more widely-accessible films, which would be a real shame. But the best actress field is actually very thin, which leads me to believe that Riva has a considerably better chance. Besides, considering that Julie Christie nearly won her second Oscar for Away from Her (2006), a similar but less polished film in which she gave a standout performance as a married woman who begins to crumple under the weight of Alzheimer's Disease, then Riva certainly should be in the same position for her better work in a better film.