by CATHALEEN QIAO CHEN
dir. Michael Haneke
If there’s one thing that’s worth watching two hours of banal Parisian domesticity and a painful geriatric nude scene, it’s director Michael Haneke’s dead-on grasp on the ugliness — and the inevitability of — waiting for death.
From Amour’s very first scene, it’s clear that the movie will be difficult to watch. There is no swelling music, no fancy typography and certainly no heartfelt tone-setting dialogue. Instead, it opens with a police squad breaking into an expensive, reeking apartment. They enter a tape-sealed bedroom, where the decaying body of our soon-to-be protagonist lies in a navy blue dress, amidst a bed of flowers — morbidly appropriate and vaguely Faulkner-esque.
Her name is Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and she is a retired piano teacher, as is Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), her husband. As indicative by their sprawling living room study and courteous discourse, Anne and Georges make up a cultured, respectable, albeit very old, couple.
But you wouldn’t want to think of them as your grandparents, at least not in that Nicholas Sparks, My-Grandma-Has-Alzheimer’s-But-Love-Prevails kind of way. Sure, there are a few endearing tidbits about them, like that Georges, a benign, balding man only wears sneakers around the apartment and that Anne, with her shrewd demeanor, obviously wears the pants. Even after her hospitalization, she scolds Georges for constantly hovering over her.
Subsequent to her initial stroke, Anne’s condition quickly worsens, and the dementia sets in. Because her right side is paralyzed from surgical complications (I suppose greedy malpractice lawsuits are less of a thing in France), Georges has to lift her into bed. These trite instances were the hardest to watch. You’d expect a certain intimacy between them — it’s Amour after all — but it never quite gets there. Instead, we get two minutes of awkward silence as Georges struggles to help Anne.
Georges also suffers. He loses sleep and when Anne refuses to drink water, he slaps her. It’s a shocking moment, the ringing of flesh striking flesh, a stark contrast to the overall cinematic quietness of the film.
But even before losing her speech and her ability to feed herself, Anne had lost her will to live. One day, when Georges comes home early to find Anne on the ground, she tells him that life has become pointless.
In this scene, I think of my days as a volunteer. I was 16, and I desperately needed to rack up community service hours because my parents convinced me I had a shot at the ivies. So, every Monday night, Thursday afternoon and the occasional Saturday, I’d try my best to emulate a Miss Teen USA smile and head to Trinity Living Center, where I read bingo cards and made small talk with Vietnam vets. Wandering through the hallways of the complex — a “renovated” two-story penitentiary that used to be a hospital, complete with a basement morgue — I accidentally witnessed nurses strapping residents into risers and sponge-bathing them in tiny, yellow stalls. It was never an interaction as much as it was a transaction.
That’s exactly how Haneke characterizes the nurses in Amour. When Anne becomes too much for Georges, he hires two aides. One of them advises him to ignore Anne’s constant moaning. An inhumane gesture, but it’s hard not to dehumanize someone who gradually loses her humanness.
At Trinity, between daydreaming about having scones with the Harvard Alumni Association and repeatedly explaining to my geriatric friends the mobile function of my flip phone, I observed their lives. I watched them as they dragged on their straining breaths, tuning in Oprah on network TV and being wheeled around the building. They spent most of their time doing nothing. It’s inevitable that after a while in a pseudo state of life, life itself loses meaning. And capturing this sentiment — or lack thereof — is perhaps Amour’s strongest merit.
One morning, upon hearing her moaning, Georges hurries to her side. He takes her hand and tells her a story about a childhood summer camp. It’s a tender moment, until Anne grows silent and Georges smothers her with the spare pillow conveniently placed beside her.
Admittedly, it was a surprise and a pretty good plot twist. And all of a sudden, it became clear that Georges is our hero, not Anne — regardless of Emmanuelle’s Oscar nomination.
Before he falls asleep that night, he hears commotion from the kitchen. Of course, it was Anne doing the dishes. As proven by decades of dramatic cinema and perhaps a cross-cultural sexist cliché, dead ladies are prone returning to their kitchens. But she is not here to haunt Georges. In her typical assertive manner, she tells him to put on his shoes. And just like that, they leave the apartment together.
Amour is a not a first date movie. Nor is it a second, third or fourth date movie. In one scene, Anne flips through old photo albums. The shot lingers on the pages as she says, “C’est beau.” “What,” Georges asks. “La vie,” she replies, “a long life.” Here, for a brief moment, the veil of tragedy dips and we catch a glimpse of what precedes it – life and amour.
Cathaleen Qiao Chen is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in Washington D.C. You can find her twitter here.
"Hot Squash" - Alexis Taylor (mp3)
"You Want Me" - Alexis Taylor (mp3)