Austrian director Michael Haneke's Amour has captured five Oscar nominations, including an unprecedented sweep of both Best Picture and Best Foreign Film. The majority of critical praise for the film focuses on its balance of compassion and brutality in presenting the final days of an elderly French couple as they endure the sordid demands of dying.
Anne and Georges Laurent are retired music instructors in their eighth decade of life who have shared a long, loving marriage. After a stroke Anne begins a trajectory of physical and cognitive decline and Georges is forced to shift exhaustively from the roles of lover, husband, father, and peer, to caretaker. Each new medical requirement marks the end to a piece of life they've shared.
If this sounds like a brutal examination of the perils of growing old, it is. However, Amour accomplishes vastly more than paint a picture of aging and dying, and to reduce its scope to such is to relegate the story of Anne and Georges -- their memories and idiosyncratic behaviors, their achievements and contributions as wife and husband, parents, music teachers, and citizens, their singular love for each other -- to a dusty place alongside the Arcadian landscapes that decorate their apartment walls.
The film is the very opposite of static portraiture, just as the Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, whom deliver powerful performances as Anne and Georges, are the opposite of cinema artifacts. Are we overwhelmed by Riva's bare body in the shower and Trintignant's fragile gate because of the actors' mastery of craft or because we are selfishly lamenting the loss of their famous youthful beauty? If it is a bit of the latter, imagine standing on a stage in your 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, and being judged only by virtue of what you are no longer; now step off the stage into the workplace, your community, your family and imagine everyone pining for that former version of yourself. In typical Haneke style, Amour challenges us to confront a horrifying ugliness that may trump that of natural biological degeneration: ageism.
Why else would the film open virtually with Emmanuelle Riva (85) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (82) staring out at us? To be exact, the first scene is that of the police violently breaking down the Laurents' front door, presumably after complaints from neighbors of a foul odor; the police then proceed to discover Anne's corpse, her face framed with a ring of flowers, decomposing in her bed. The story then shifts backwards to a time in the relatively recent past when Anne is still alive. It's here, in a large theater, that we find Anne and Georges facing the camera as if it were the stage, awaiting the start of Alexandre Tharaud's (Anne's former pupil) concert. We never see Tharaud's performance. However, we do see two cinema legends regarding us directly (a bit bored?), seemingly waiting for us demonstrate something remarkable or at least something worth their time. Will we?
In interviews, Haneke denies Amour contains the pretense of social commentary. To Time Out London he attested he had no desire to create a "social-drama" and to The Village Voice he affirmed that although he was aware of the timely issues concerning the social and economic implications of the rapidly growing older population his intensions were centered solely around his interest in what happens when we must take care of a dying loved one. "You could also make a film about a couple in their thirties who have an eight-year-old child who's dying of cancer; they face the same problem," he offered for comparison. If this is true then the constant ageist onslaughts encountered by Anne and Georges demonstrate the weight of our age-based biases: it appears discrimination is part and parcel of getting older.
Weak, feeble, slow, irritable, forgetful, frail, sweet, cute, and wise are common adjectives associated with older age in Western culture. "Sweet" and "cute" are infantilizing; therefore, with the exception of wise, all of these descriptions are negative. In Anne and Georges' case these intrusions arrive at their front door as steadily as the promise of death, whisked in by inept nurses, who bathe and groom Anne as if she were an object, a non-sentient being; invasions of their dignity are perpetuated by patronizing onlookers like Mr. and Mrs. Mery, who offer unwanted, empty platitudes, and even by a caring but careless Tharaud who appropriates Anne and Georges pain after a visit to the apartment, writing in a card, "Dear Mr. and Mrs. Laurent, I shared a sad and beautiful moment with you"; and perhaps most egregiously it's their daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who perpetrates the majority of the ageist insults. Eva incessantly questions her father's every decision, forcibly visits even when her parents prefer privacy; her emotional outbursts are direct affronts against the arduous hours her father dedicates to her mother's care. But finally, Anne and Georges will suffer judgment by the police and the film audience -- i.e., Did Georges have the right to commit his final act?
Perhaps the tension between compassion and brutality in Amour is born from the entanglement of invading physical illness with ageism (the effect is even more terrifying if it were completely unintended). For which is worse, to die of old age or to be belittled because of your age? The hypothetical middle-aged couple whose child is dying of cancer would have been spared the indignities of demeaning stereotypes while dealing with the complications of love and loss. The casual nature with which Western society regards ageism is an insidious horror indeed.
Like Eva, we often forget how much we owe the older generation. They were our mentors but now we do not trust they posses the mental faculties to fathom the modern world. So, we lower our expectations. We take jobs away. We assume we know better. We doubt they know anything at all. Worst of all, we clump "them" all together and cease recognizing older individuals as individuals. Just as Georges' physical and cognitive abilities are different than Anne's, this is also true of the individual differences between the older adults in our lives. Ironically, unlike most variants of prejudice, age-based discrimination is exacted on both the "other" and theoretically against our future selves. Does aging appear so abhorrent we must violently separate ourselves from our own fate? Yet, it is clear Amour is warmed by Trintignant's signature gentleness and made intense by Riva's clipped speech. The actor who played the ultimate romantic role in A Man and A Woman and the sad, complexly cuckolded Marcello Clerici in The Conformist and the actress who intensified the severe and bullheaded Elle in Hiroshima, Mon Amour are rightly cast as Georges and Anne Laurent. They bring to these roles a richness and mastery that can only grow with age. Why then are we still reluctant to consider the continuity of who we are today and who we will become decades later? Perhaps, it's because an undercurrent of ageism malevolently insists that despite our best efforts we will inevitably be underestimated as weak, feeble, slow, irritable, forgetful, and frail.
But imagine saying this to Riva and Trintignant, as they regard us from their theater seats. Imagine saying this to Haneke, who at 70 may be the most confrontational and daring director of our time.
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