(CBS News) The Academy Awards ceremony is now less than a month away, and our David Edelstein has been to see a controversial nominee:
A lot of folks were shocked when the French drama "Amour" won an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, Emmanuelle Riva for Best Actress, and Michael Haneke for Best Director -- the Austrian filmmaker beating high-profile Americans like Ben Affleck, Kathryn Bigelow and Quentin Tarantino.
I was gobsmacked myself. "Amour" is a hell of a movie, but the Academy doesn't often nominate foreign language films for the top prize, especially when they're bleak, arty, glacially-paced, profoundly hopeless -- I could go on.
So what's the deal with this one? Well, it's two-plus grueling hours of an eighty-something woman dying very slowly, and an eighty-something man looking on helplessly.
Riva plays the woman, a retired music teacher; Jean-Louis Trintignant, her husband. They're proud, self-sufficient, the embodiment of Western European upper-middle-class refinement in a Paris apartment that's a bastion of culture, a refuge -- until it becomes a prison, the light growing colder as the woman loses one precious faculty after another: loss of movement, loss of language -- as their daughter, Isabelle Huppert, is a bystander. The couple doesn't even want her standing by.
I'm not a fan of Michael Haneke's other films, among them the thriller "Funny Games" (made in German, and remade shot-for-shot in English); "The Piano Teacher"; and "Cache." Not to put too fine a point on it, I think he's a pretentious punk, an arthouse thug, a sadist -- don't worry, he'd love these names, he lives to infuriate bourgeois types like me.
But in "Amour," he has a real-world antagonist even crueler and more brutal than he is: time.
Merely pointing his camera at these two elderly people and not blinking, not turning away as something happens to them that happens to people we know and will happen to us, too, seems like a higher form of compassion.
The octogenarian demographic is not well represented on screen, and probably the eighty-something-year-olds in the Academy (quite a few) made a statement with their votes.
But "Amour" transcends age. What passes between these two great actors feels sacred. Riva's eyes signal comprehension even as the sounds coming out of her mouth become animalistic -- Trintignant's eyes signal dismay, and then anger.
But he can't look away. That's amour.