Rated PG-13 for mature themes and brief profanity.
Title notwithstanding, director Michael Haneke's "Amour" — the last of this year's nine Best Picture Academy Award nominees to reach Memphis — is hardly a conventional movie love story.
It's not what people mean when they refer to a "date movie," and it might seem an odd booking choice for the week of Valentine's Day.
Or is it an inspired choice? A chronicle of the physical decline, emotional turmoil and hard decisions that are the inevitable consequences of a decades-long, till-death-do-us-part romance, "Amour" climaxes with what might be described as a grim act of true love.
Such grimness, presented with the unblinking absorption of an entomologist pinning a specimen to a corkboard, is a signature of the much-honored and resolute Haneke, whose movies often present harsh, sometimes violent events within a minutely and artfully calibrated visual context.
Through long takes, wide shots, infrequent close-ups and patient editing, Haneke intends to empower or engage the viewer. He may require us to look at a shot for as long as we might examine a painting on a wall in a museum; in this way, he asks us to find meaning or at least beauty in his compositions. This approach can be refreshing or frustrating, depending on the cunning of the storytelling. Sometimes, as in the writer-director's previous film, "The White Ribbon" (2009), the deliberate obfuscations of Haneke's plots seem more perverse than mysterious.
The best picture of the year, according to the National Society of Film Critics, and the winner of the top prize, the Palme d'Or, at the Cannes Film Festival, "Amour" may be Haneke's most straightforward film, which may explain why it has found a large and appreciative — or at least interested — audience. In addition to Best Picture, the movie has been nominated for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (Haneke) and Best Foreign Language Film (the movie is in French, with English subtitles).
Best Actress contender Emmanuelle Riva is 85, making her the oldest nominee ever in that category; in an interesting coincidence, her competition includes youngest-ever nominee Quvenzhané Wallis ("Beasts of the Southern Wild"), who is 9.
A key actress of the French New Wave who is best remembered for 1959's "Hiroshima Mon Amour," Riva is Anne Laurent, wife of Georges Laurent, played by veteran French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant, a star since 1956, when he romanced Brigitte Bardot in "And God Created Woman."
"Amour" casts these two art-house icons as octogenarian retired classical musicians and teachers, living in a large, impressively furnished and neat-as-a-pin apartment in Paris. Almost the entire film takes place within these lovingly lighted rooms. (The cinematographer is auteur-friendly Darius Khondji, who has worked with Woody Allen, Wong Kar-wai and Bernardo Bertolucci.)
The décor attests to the couple's erudition: We see shelves of books, record albums, a grand piano. When Anne and Georges attend a piano concert, Anne compliments her former pupil for the "incredible semiquavers in the presto."
The couple's cozy happiness is interrupted and in fact ended by what a doctor calls "an obstruction of the carotid." After this stroke, Anne becomes increasingly incapacitated. "We've always coped, your mother and I," Georges reassures their daughter (Isabelle Huppert), yet his bravery offers little comfort to his wife. "There's no reason to go on living," says Anne, who rejects pity and despises condescension. "I know it can only get worse."
Even so, the couple soldiers on, in "sad and humiliating" circumstances. Worthy of the Oscar it may earn, Riva's performance is bold and brave, and apparently free of vanity; Trintignant, who is really the lead character in the story, is just as remarkable. Their performances are natural, and do not betray any actor's tricks or insecurities. They play to each other, not the camera.
"Amour" opens with back-to-back break-ins. The first sets up the long flashback story that is the bulk of the movie; the second, which introduces us to Georges and Anne, finds the couple returning home to discover that a burglar has broken their door. These home invasions connect "Amour" to Haneke's earlier, more diabolical provocations, notably his notorious Austrian and American versions of "Funny Games." "Amour" depicts a more universal and yet intimate type of "home invasion," the inevitable degeneration of the mind and body.
At one point, Anne looks through a scrapbook at pictures of her younger self. "It's beautiful," she remarks. "Life." Perhaps the movie should have ended there; not because the moment is upbeat, but because the tougher conclusion favored by Haneke seems somehow dishonest (even if it was foreshadowed by Anne's comment to her husband: "You're a monster sometimes, but very kind").
The ending may be characteristic of Haneke, but it's not characteristic of most people's fates, and it reminds us that Georges and Anne aren't so much victims of age as puppets in the hands of a pitiless director who mistakes morbidity for honesty.
"Amour" is showing exclusively at the Malco Ridgeway Four.