By Joan Ellis
Amour has arrived on a wave of superlatives. Critics, who I suspect may be quite young, have hailed it as a masterful love story and an acting triumph. Is there a possibility they are idealizing the reality of old age?
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), retired music teachers in their 80s, live comfortably in an enduring marriage and a dark Paris apartment. Unfortunately we don’t learn much about their history together before Anne is stricken with a TIA (transient ischemic attack, or a mini-stroke) at the breakfast table. Though the attack passes, doctors recommend surgery that fails. The balance of the film is George’s struggle to care for Anne as her mind and body decline.
The filmmakers spare us none of the details of taking care of a partner who can do nothing for herself. He feeds her, changes her diapers, washes her hair, gives her a shower and suffers her inability to convey anything in the easy communication they once shared.
Director Michael Haneke draws these duties out at deliberate, interminable length. We learn by watching in real time exactly how long it takes this frail husband to cross the long hall to answer a cry from his wife. This love story is a prickly one of two people who have navigated the complexities of marriage over decades. And it is one that ends in a punishing ordeal for Anne, for Georges, and for the audience.
Georges is dismissive of his daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) who visits with good intentions only to have her questions rebuffed harshly by her father. We wish not for sentimentality, but at least for warmth, and there is none. Why? We have only to remember that Michael Haneke made The White Ribbon, a story of a pre-World War I patriarchal German village living in a culture infected with the dark and heavy gloom of hatred. In that movie, we in the audience longed for relief that never came. Amour subjects its audience to a similar experience of ordeal and punishment even though the characters are commendable. This director, so comfortable with harshness, throws us few crumbs of tenderness.
Trintignant and Riva are extremely brave in their willingness to play this couple – Georges’ frail caregiving and Anne’s sad decay. They do it well, but Mr. Haneke has directed their story with an inescapable, relentless undercurrent of severity.
This difficult film could, but surely won’t, serve as a trigger for an overdue conversation about death and dying. Anne had a window after her second stroke where she told Georges she wanted to die rather than be subjected to the futile attentions of people who mean well but serve only to prolong a life that is already gone. Our culture, so outspoken in other ways, refuses to tackle the question of death with dignity. Why can’t we discuss, as Anne did, the right of old people to die peacefully at the time of their choice? Love, as Georges discovered, can be crushed by illness.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.