Austin Hagwood | Monday, April 8, 2013
From prescription drugs to cultural fascination with sex, death tends to be something we avoid – you will pardon the phrase – like the plague. Tragedies or the demise of a loved one shock and unsettle routine self-assurance, but we quickly objectify such incidents as unpleasant abstractions. Death is always something that happens to other people, something that occurs in foreign deserts or newspaper headlines, something to be kept out of sight where the kids won’t find it. Like the process of cleaning campground toilets or the popularity of Kardashian mammals on national television, death is uncomfortable to think about. And yet, as mausoleums from vases to the pyramids remind us, death remains a distinctly human fixation.
In his Academy Award-winning French-language film Amour (“Best Foreign Film” – 2012), Austrian director Michael Haneke depicts the heartbreaking deterioration of a couple preserving their love despite the decay of old age. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are former music instructors enjoying the tranquility of retirement in their 80s – attending concerts, hosting former students and maintaining a distant relationship with their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) – until Anne begins suffering blank spells and losing motor cognition.
Following a failed surgery, Anne experiences partial paralysis and becomes confined to a wheelchair, completely dependent on Georges for every hygienic need. Yet her worsening condition only accentuates Georges’ everlasting love for his wife, a love that transcends companionship and challenges our conventional understanding of the necessity of life and release of death.
Rather than romanticized, technicolor visions of old age typified by Hollywood films such as “Father of the Bride,” “Amour” illustrates the distinctly modern problem that accompanies contemporary medicine’s ability to delay death – wasting away interminably as a living corpse. Haneke’s film is difficult to watch precisely because it avoids rosy, elegant death in favor of the brutal decline we will all suffer if we avoid a premature demise. Through extensive long takes, infrequent cuts and slow tracking shots, Haneke reflects the agonizing pace and sense of stasis that begins to define the couple’s lifestyle.
Moreover, simple scene composition informs most shots and creates an aura of dusty normalcy. But rather than create an idyllic French apartment recognizable as filmic, “Amour” suspends our disbelief perfectly. This is not the old age of Christmas dinners and cards, but instead one of loneliness, hospice and complete dependency on others for everything from cold showers to plastic sippy-cups. Instead of dismissing the film as a piece of fictionalized cinema with no tangible bridge to our perspective as detached viewers, Haneke’s understated realism transforms the piece into a dark, immersive documentary exploring the tortured psychodrama that could (and will) cripple any couple realizing the inescapability of mortality.
And yet the film’s title remains more fitting than ever. “Amour” is in essence a beautiful love story and an examination of the depths to which individuals can redefine what love actually means. One of the film’s most touching moments occurs following Anne’s final and debilitative stroke, when she becomes mute and reduced to an infantile state. After over fifty years of love, Georges continues to sing songs and tell her stories he knows she cannot hear and write passionate letters he knows she cannot read.
When Anne refuses to drink fluids in an attempt to kill herself, Georges slaps her not out of anger, but instead as a desperate lover unwilling to let her go. As Anne lingers for weeks in an unrecognizable mask of a body, Georges relies on their mutual ethics of love to force his hand to the film’s climax of euthanasia. And yet Georges’ decision unsettles us not because it is heinous, but because it is in itself the most unselfish expression of his love. And in a college culture defined by hedonism, ring-by-spring and sticky hookups on beer-soaked floors, this kind of love is truly worth seeing.
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