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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fair
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A man cares for his terminally ill wife in Amour
Heavy hearts
A couple manage distressing new challenges with trial and error.
A couple manage distressing new challenges with trial and error.

Emmanuelle Riva is up for the Best Actress Oscar on the strength of her work in Amour, a painful, exquisite family drama. Her performance is remarkable. In the beginning her character, an elderly piano teacher named Anne, walks and talks. Then, because of a series of strokes, she is almost completely incapacitated. The changes are gradual. First she needs a wheelchair. Then she can't speak coherently. Then she can barely move.

Riva's Oscar nod is well deserved. But I think one also should have gone to Jean-Louis Trintignant, who turns in an equally heartbreaking performance as Georges, Anne's husband. He is devoted to Anne. He is, as the film's title suggests, in love. But he does not always make good choices. He is cantankerous, even paranoid. At times he gives in to anger.

Riva and Trintignant both are legends of French cinema. She starred in the New Wave classic Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), he in the international sensation A Man and a Woman (1966). They both are in their 80s. They are superb.

Michael Haneke, who wrote and directed Amour, captures many truths about caring for an invalid. There is a gripping intensity to certain everyday moments, as when Georges feeds Anne, or walks her up and down the hallway of their Paris apartment. There are also sad conversations between Georges and daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert).

The film conveys just how humiliating and baffling terminal illness can be, for patients and caregivers alike. Anne and Georges must use trial and error as they figure out how to manage their new life together. How do you change an adult's diaper? What do you say to someone who says she wants to die?

The last Haneke film to open in Madison was The White Ribbon, set in a creepy German village just before World War I. I was impatient with that film's self-conscious artiness. There are elements of that in Amour, including a slightly belabored metaphor involving a pigeon. But for the most part Amour is a restrained work, and its restraint is its strength.

Watching Amour, I kept flashing back to 2004, when my sister-in-law died of a brain tumor. I cared for her some before she passed away. I vividly remember a moment when I lifted her off a toilet. Somehow I hurt her, and she wailed in pain. I felt ashamed - and frustrated that I didn't know what to do, and that she couldn't tell me.

There are moments like that in Amour. As I watched them, they felt so true that they made me cringe. Sometimes art makes us cringe.

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