Movie Review: Amour

★★★★☆

When the nominations for the Academy Awards were announced on Jan. 10, it surprised no one to see the critically acclaimed Austrian film Amour earn a spot in the Best Foreign Language Film category. When it was revealed that the film also secured nominations for Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Picture, heads began to turn.

While many people probably hadn’t heard about Amour until after it received its surprise Oscar nominations, the film has been making waves in the film community across the globe since May of last year. It took home the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, one of the most prominent film festivals in the world, and has been slowly building a base of support ever since.

The film follows Georges and Anne Laurent (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly couple who spend most of their retirement listening to sweeping concertos and reading novels in their extravagant Paris apartment.

One day, Anne becomes completely unresponsive to her husband. She looks blankly at her husband and when she finally comes around, she has no memory of the episode. It is revealed that Anne suffered from a stroke that paralyzes her right side completely.

The rest of the film focuses on Georges’ increasingly futile attempts to normalize his reality as he constantly attends to his wife’s health. Their daughter Eva, played by the always-luminous Isabelle Huppert, also becomes a frequent visitor and tries to convince her father that he needs more help.

What makes Amour so tragically powerful is the combination two factors: the deft direction of Michael Haneke and the excruciatingly raw performances from the two lead actors.

Riva, who received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, depicts the effects of a stroke with complete sincerity. Her condition eventually deteriorates to the point that she becomes essentially nonverbal. She can only utter incoherent words and sounds and Riva is realistic throughout.

Trintignant has arguably the more difficult role because it requires him to portray anguish and pain while hiding behind a brave face. Georges doesn’t want his wife sent to a nursing home so he takes on all the responsibilities required for her care. While Georges still loves his wife, the woman that stares back at him eventually becomes unrecognizable and watching him attempt to deal with this fact becomes devastating and almost unbearable.

While Riva and Trintignant give tremendous performances, Haneke’s style is what really drives the emotional power of the film. Haneke - whose films normally deal with perverse and dark themes like in The Pianist and The White Ribbon - employs excruciatingly long takes with minimal camera movements. In one scene, Georges is rummaging around in the study, yet Haneke puts the camera in the hallway and simply lets the action unfold from a distance.

This approach causes a glacially slow pace that may infuriate some viewers, but it allows the deterioration of Anne to feel authentic. Rather than quickly cutting scenes together, Haneke lets the camera linger. We can watch the gradual destruction of Anne’s mental state and see every nuanced detail of Georges reaction to the growing hardships of his wife’s condition. The final effect is crushing.

Amour probably won’t win the Academy Award for Best Picture, or for Best Director or Best Actress. Still, there is a reason it managed to accumulate so many awards and praise. Quite simply, it is one of the best movies of 2012.