Academy does the right thing by Michael Haneke’s ‘Amour’

Michael Haneke has made some of the most audience-dividing pictures of the modern era — “The Piano Teacher” and “The White Ribbon,” among them — but love him or hate him, you’ve got to respect a filmmaker who goes his own way in the current crushingly commercial movie marketplace.

I’m a big fan of Haneke’s, but I’ve learned over the years that he doesn’t believe in making things easy for an audience. The Austrian director crafts austere, troubling stories that can create a feeling of claustrophobia in a moviegoer. Haneke omits almost all of the elements that Hollywood ladles on its movies — sentimentality, happy endings, comic relief, music that guides us emotionally.

When I heard that Haneke’s latest movie was called “Amour” and that it involved a couple in their 80s, played by two French cinema legends, coping with illness, my first thought was — Has the modern cinema’s reigning master of despair gone all “On Golden Pond” on us?

I should have known better.

 “Amour,” which has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including a rare best picture and best foreign langauge film double act,  and it is one of the most devastating tales of the ravages of old age that has even been presented in a film.

Unlike “On Golden Pond” which scared us — and Katharine Hepburn — with Henry Fonda’s “spell” and then reassured us it was nothing, “Amour” is about the sudden and steep physical decline that can hit old people.

French cinema icons Jean Louis-Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva play a fairly well-heeled Paris couple who, in the opening scene, we see attending a concert by one of her former music students. They are greeted warmly backstage by the pupil-turned-star and happily ride a bus home.

The next morning, the wife seems to be suddenly struck dumb at the breakfast table, but by the time the husband gets his coat and is ready to take her to a doctor, she seems alright again.

It’s just the calm before the storm, however, as the poor woman is battered by a series of small strokes that restrict her to a wheelchair at first and then leave her bedridden. The woman spends one or two nights in a hospital, but asks her husband to promise her she will never have to go back.

Nurses are hired. One competent and warm, the other a secret sadist the husband is forced to fire in a scene of such barely controlled viciousness — on the part of the nurse — that it’s hard to watch.

Nearly all of “Amour” is played out in the couple’s Paris apartment which becomes a setting every bit as horrifying as the London apartment Catherine Deneuve occupied in the Roman Polanski classic “Repulsion” — except that old movie was a melodramatic shocker and what Haneke gives us is the terror of hopeless decline.

Trintignant and Riva give extraordinary performances that operate on two levels — the simple power of what they do as these characters and the echoes they carry with them of such great films of the 1950s and 1960s as “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” and “A Man and a Woman.” One of the reasons older arthouse audiences will stay with this depressing and harrowing film is our connection of many years with the two stars.

Another French icon — Isabelle Huppert — turns up in a supporting role as the couple’s daughter who lives in London. Like the two stars, Huppert gives a raw performance powered by the anger and the frustration her character feels watching her mother slipping away. She also knows that she cannot interrupt her own busy life to lend her father a hand. It’s the polar opposite of the performance Jane Fonda gave in the equivalent role in “On Golden Pond.”

“Amour” is another brilliant film by Michael Haneke, but I hope that the people who will be drawn in by the Oscar nominations will be ready for its unflinching vision of old age.

(“Amour” opens today at the Avon Theatre Film Center in Stamford and the Garden Cinemas in Norwalk.)