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Oscar Nods Await “Amour” Stars Riva and Trintignant

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Will Emmanuelle Riva, 85, and Jean-Louis Trintignant, 81, be nominated for the Best Actress and Best Actor Academy Awards on January 10? If their countryman Jean Dujardin can win as Best Actor for “The Artist,” the veteran French stars should at least be acknowledged by the Academy for their formidable work in Michael Haneke’s “Amour.” It would be a travesty if they weren’t.

What may prevent them receiving Oscar nods is the depiction of relentless suffering in the Palme d’Or-winning drama, which opens on December 19. Unlike the infectious but over-praised “The Artist,” “Amour” is not a crowd-pleaser, but a harrowing near-masterpiece. It may demonstrate the ascetic Haneke’s capacity for compassion, but typically for a film directed by the Austrian auteur, it doesn’t flinch from putting its protagonists – and the audience – through a grueling ordeal.

It begins with an image of an elderly woman, Anne (Riva), lying on her deathbed. The film then returns to the time, not long before, when she and her husband Georges (Trintignant) – a bourgeouis couple, former piano teachers — were enjoying their golden years in their well-appointed Paris apartment.

Haneke subsequently traces the progress of Anne’s creeping dementia, which Georges, who copes admirably with her mental and physical decline while succumbing to grief and rage, is powerless to arrest. Their depressive daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who lives abroad with her serially unfaithful husband, proves ill-attuned to her mother’s plight when she visits and is forced by her father into the role of a bystander. The culminating sacrificial act of love transcends, not without irony, the prevailing bleakness, though no one will leave the theater happily anticipating old age.

Given that Riva has only a few scenes in which to establish the kind of woman Anne is before she becomes ill, she leaves an impression of a wife who probably had the upper hand with her husband through their marriage, if not overbearingly so. She is caustic on occasion, but when she tells Georges that he has been a monster, the sentiment is good-natured, not a condemnation. Cruelly prostrated, she drifts in and out of consciousness, and when alert she communicates how deeply humiliated she is.

Georges has clearly always adored Anne. “Did I tell you how pretty you looked tonight?” he says to her after they return from a concert early in the film. He means it, too – it’s not calculated chivalry. Later, when she is dying, he becomes gloomily philosophical even as he determines that he will see their ebbing life through to the end. He has limited patience and when he lashes out at Anne it is shocking, if understandable.

Riva and Trintignant were two of the great European art-house actors of the 1960s. Drawn to literary and morally complex roles, Riva moved from espousing unreliable memories as the unnamed French actress splitting with her Japanese lover in “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” to playing the widowed, sexually frustrated militant Communist who endures unrequited desire for her eponymous confessor in “Léon Morin, Priest.” In “Thérèse Desqueyroux,” she was outstanding as the bored wife who attempts the poisoning of her insufferable husband before becoming his willing prisoner.

Trintignant followed his long apprenticeship as a conventional romantic lead with the role of the widower (bedeviled by his lover’s memories of her late husband) in “A Man and a Woman.” He became an icon as the stiff, voyeuristic fascist assassin with the thousand-mile stare in “The Conformist.” Later he emerged as an authoritative character player, on stage as well as on screen.

In “Amour,” all their old mystery falls away. Portraying octogenarians faced with worsening indignities, on her part, and thankless stoicism, on his, they allow the camera to strip them of actorly pretence. They become emotionally naked – it must have taken courage to be so frail and so exposed.

Riva, a published poet, is still open to offers for acting work. Trintignant came out of retirement to work with Haneke and doesn’t anticipate making more films. Judging by their comments in yesterday’s The Guardian, neither actor is interested in further acclaim.

If Oscar-nominated as Best Actress, Riva would be the eldest  nominee ever in either actress category – the current record-holder, Jessica Tandy, was 80 when she won as Best Actress for “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1989. The Oscar ceremony is on February 24, the day Riva turns 86. In a year that’s not regarded as particularly strong for Best Actress candidates, her stiffest competition might come from nine-year-old Quevenzhané Wallis (“Beasts of the Southern Wild”).

In contrast, Trintignant would likely be up against Daniel Day-Lewis (“Lincoln”) and Joaquin Phoenix (“The Master”). He would become the oldest Best Actor nominee in history, the previous record-holder being 79-year-old Richard Farnsworth (1999’s “The Straight Story”). The oldest man to win as either Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor is last year’s Supporting Actor winner, Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”), who was 82 years and 75 days. Trintignant, if nominated, would be…82 years and 75 days. Does either man know what time he was born?

Image: Jean-Louis Trintignant, left, and Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour”/© 2012 – Les Films du Losange

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