By Soot-Case Murphy
Michael Haneke made a movie about my grandparents.
I know I won’t be the only one who’s seen his newest film, Amour, and walked out thinking that very sentiment. Judging from the silence surrounding me upon the film’s closing blackout, I’m sure that other audience members a) have already seen the story of Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) in their own lives, or b) are dreading the point at which they’ll see it unfold. Perhaps they’ve seen it with their grandparents, and how their own parents dealt with it. Maybe it’s coming to a point where they will have to say goodbye to their own parents, too. Haneke has stated that he wrote this based upon a similar situation involving somebody he loved very deeply. Was it a parent? A grandparent? A surrogate? A mate? Does it matter?
“Amour” is, of course, French for “love,” and the film proves that the word is loaded. It’s truly a romantic drama, even if it doesn’t appear on the surface. The love between the two is complicated, frustrated, stubborn, and devoted. Anne and Georges, retired music teachers, spend their days in a ghostly Parisian apartment (and as painful moans float through the walls, the ghostliness only builds). One morning Anne’s mind drifts, staring off into space. It’s the image on the poster, thereby becoming the most iconic image of the film, and for good reason too. While Anne looks out into space (or, as Georges puts it, “going mad”), there is a look of meditative affection. She may be out of it, and half of her face looks as though it’s sliding off, but she can’t shake that love written upon her face. Georges’ face is one of confusion, frustration, and sadness mixed with a stubborn realization of the inevitable.
The reason I mention this is that most “romance movie” posters feature (most often) a man and a woman in harmonious rapture without any sign of nuance. The one for Amour offers a more realistic look into the complications of relationships. I saw these emotions, and more, in my grandparents in the months leading up to my grandpa’s death. In spite of all their arguments, physical and verbal, and past all the strain that choked their fifty-year-strong marriage, my grandma still took care of him. She’s not in peak strength herself, but she lived by her nurse’s code until the day grandpa died. As my mom would say to me over and over, “that’s love.”
Naturally, I saw my mother in Georges and Anne’s daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert). If there’s a character most audiences will identify with, it’s her. Eva wants the best care for her mother, who’s dying of surgically-inflicted paralysis and a stroke. She sees her mother mumbling gibberish, causing her to recoil in confusion. She lashes out at her father for not contacting her, but she’s only beginning to understand a snippet of the anguish caused to a spouse in such times.
In his review, Roger Ebert points out how an early shot of a theatre audience is a reflection of ourselves. We are the audience to this deterioration, just as Trintignant becomes the audience to Riva’s. This motif is not unfamiliar to Haneke. Cache was a meditation on voyeurism, and Funny Games scolded audiences for finding glee in screen violence. This time, Haneke isn’t wrapping lessons up in clever packages. He’s bordering on docudrama.
Only somebody who’s lived through such an ordeal can replicate these moments. All parties involved are unwilling to accept this cruel truth. There are times where they prepare for the inevitable, and there are times where they pretend full recovery is in their midst. People begin to lose touch and say things they don’t mean. Slowly, everyone begins to break down from who they are at the beginning. Haneke doesn’t speed this up, which makes him more admirable as a director. We as an audience are only watching this for two hours. He had to sit down, write this through, shoot scenes multiple times, edit it, and then rewatch the whole process over and over. He’s put himself through the ordeal, one slow moving minute at a time. He knows that there’s no way to get through it quickly.
There are those who say it’s worse to die alone. Amour shows that to die by somebody’s side is no picnic either. I’ve seen it happen. Many who will see this movie have already known what it’s like to witness it. Many will see the film as a tiny pinhole into what to expect. Haneke may be a harsh director, one who confronts audiences with films that don’t escape from reality. And yet, he’s merciful enough to hide us from every part of the truth. Some experiences, no matter how agonizing, need to be lived rather than watched.