It’s that time again, folks. With the new year comes two solid months of the worst crap that Hollywood can unload while everyone’s distracted by Oscar-mania and the Super Bowl. There’s usually a good new release here and there among the dreck, but everything in multiplexes right now has gotten a middling-to-negative reception. Perhaps I’ll drag myself to see one of them eventually, but I’d much rather fill a few gaps in my knowledge of awards contenders.

First and foremost among them is Amour. I already commented on this back in my Oscar nominations rundown, but to recap, I REALLY did not want to see this movie. After seeing this godawful trailer so many times, the mere thought of sitting through the entire film struck me with overwhelming nausea. However, one of my correspondents was good enough to remind me that trailers for foreign films are more often garbage than not. Furthermore, due to the film’s overwhelming reception among awards voters and the aforementioned dearth of good material at multiplexes, it was inevitable that I’d have to cover this film when it came to Portland.

To my great relief, Amour was not nearly as awful as I had feared. It still wasn’t nearly as good as promised, though.

The premise is a simple one: Georges and Ann Laurent (Jean-Louise Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, respectively) are a happily married couple of retirees living in Paris until Ann comes down with some kind of neurological disorder. After a failed attempt at fixing the problem via surgery, Ann is essentially doomed to a slow and agonizing death as her body and mind continue to deteriorate. All the while, Georges has to be on hand around-the-clock to care for this woman who can barely move a muscle without assistance.

First of all, it’s worth remembering that Georges is old enough to have one foot in the grave himself. As such, there’s always the implicit question of how close he is to following his wife in dementia and death. In fact, it’s possible that the overwhelming stress of caring for his wife 24/7 may speed the decay of his own health.

Secondly, Ann goes through the whole film asking when life simply isn’t worth it any more. Where’s the point in living, she asks, while she never has a chance at leaving her apartment again? Wouldn’t it be better to die than to be a constant burden to her loved ones? These are heartbreaking questions that we’ll all have to face someday if we have the luck to live long enough, and it’s awful to think that so many have to ask these questions every day.

I suppose I should also mention their daughter. Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is essentially the movie’s voice of impotent rage. She knows that the situation is untenable and Georges can’t possibly be capable of providing the care that Ann needs, but she’s unable to find a better solution. She can’t take her mom to a hospice, since that would do more harm than good and they couldn’t provide any services she isn’t already getting at home. Doctors won’t do any good, since Ann’s condition is incurable and no hospital would take her for further treatment anyway.

There’s one point in the film when Eva expresses frustration that now, in the 21st century, we still have no treatment for whatever it is that Ann has. She never thinks of it, and the film fails to mention it, but it is forever beyond the grasp of humanity to cure death. As unfairly painful as it is, Ann’s time has come. Simple as that.

The point being that Georges and Eva show conflicting reactions to Ann’s condition. Eva struggles to follow every possible option, only to find that each one leads to a brick wall. She then proceeds to beat her head against the wall repeatedly in the vain hope that it will break down. Georges, on the other hand, has made his peace with the futility of the situation. He knows that he has to preserve Ann’s quality of life for as long as humanly possible, and he loves her to such a degree that he’s gladly accepted the responsibility as his cross to bear. No matter how much it pains him to the depths of his soul, and no matter how much Ann may resist, he will see this through to the bitter end.

On a technical level, the film is aggressively minimalist. The score is basically non-existent, the camera is locked firmly in place for all but a couple of brief moments, every scene was shot with the least possible number of cuts and angles, and at least 95 percent of the film takes place in the same apartment. This approach affects the film in a lot of deep ways. For one thing, it means that there is absolutely nothing to distract from the characters. All attention is focused solely on the actors and their dialogue. Mercifully, the actors in this film are really damned good and they were given some of the most elegantly crafted dialogue I’ve heard in quite some time.

Something else about the minimalist approach is that it affects the pacing in a very double-edged way. In some scenes, it provides an awkward and pained feel that’s nicely expressive of the main characters’ situation. In other scenes, the lack of edits do nothing but pad out the 127-minute runtime.

And then we have the padding that’s just plain gratuitous. My favorite example comes at the 90-minute mark, when we’re greeted to so many still shots of paintings. No voice-overs, no music, no point of any kind to be seen, just several still shots of random paintings. This comes a short time before Georges tries to capture an intruding pigeon, and we’re forced to see every embarrassing second of it for what amounts to no reason.

I could list so many other complaints about this film, but pretty much all of them are limited to the first and third acts. All the film’s various emotional tricks work very well as Ann’s condition steadily grows worse, but they work to the film’s detriment in countless ways before and after.

Let’s start with the first act. When Georges and Ann first enter the apartment, they walk away from the camera before sharing a very nice and intimate moment. Yet the camera is locked in place, so we’re forced to see this intimate moment while Georges is a mile away and Ann is off-camera entirely.

Then comes the moment when Ann is first diagnosed. The moment comes and goes very quickly, since it’s never shown onscreen. Instead, we have to see Eva get the doctor’s bad news secondhand through Georges.

First of all, I understand why the film takes place pretty much entirely in that apartment: It puts us in the position of the paralyzed woman who can never leave it. However, that point is entirely moot at a time in the movie when Ann is not presently in the apartment. You know that old saying “show, don’t tell,” right? Well, that should be considered absolutely fucking mandatory for such a pivotal moment as that one!

Secondly, if taking us to the hospital wasn’t an option, the film might at least have given Georges a great dramatic moment as he breaks the news to his daughter. Alas, the film doesn’t even get that much right, since the goddamned camera is locked in place where Georges can’t be seen. Stupid.

Moving on, the movie’s last half-hour suffers because it hits a plateau. We eventually reach a point where Ann can’t possibly get any worse except to finally die. And we know she’s going to die, because the film has a prologue that shows us her dead body. Yet the third act really drags its feet in getting to that moment. When the death finally does come (in what’s admittedly a very shocking turn of events), the film keeps stalling with one totally inconsequential scene after another, culminating in a “fuck you” ending that leaves close to nothing resolved.

The second act of Amour is ultimately good enough that I can give the film a recommendation, but only for the most patient of moviegoers. The pace of this film is absolutely glacial, and the running time was padded to an inch of its life, but there are some times when the film’s minimalist approach and awkward pacing work to its advantage.

I certainly don’t begrudge Emmanuelle Riva’s nomination for Best Actress or Michael Haneke’s nomination for Best Original Screenplay. If not for the overwhelming competition, I would have considered Jean-Louise Trintignant a shoe-in for Best Actor as well. The lead characters and their awful situation were heartbreaking to watch, and the superb script was a key reason why.

But Best Direction? Best Picture? No fucking way. Not even close.

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