Since the beginning of the new year, I have heard again and again about the new work of Austrian film maker Michael Haneke, whose signature works includes "Funny Game," "The White Ribbon," and "Cache." This latest work, "Amour," has been described as riveting and compassionate, yet totally unnerving and depressing, "Considering its topic, how could it be anything else?" I have been warned, in one way or the other, with constancy. But I came away from this film with a different emphasis: the fortune of this couple, their exclusivity, and their isolation from their daughter.
As most theatre lovers know by now, "Amour" focuses on the final chapter in the married life and love of a devoted couple, each former music teachers. Adding to the quality and charisma of the film, the couple, Anne and Georges Laurent, is played by two extraordinary, beloved European actors, known for decades in their younger years to so very many in every country where film is appreciated, Emmanuelle Riva ("Heroshima Mon Amour") and Jean-Louis Trintignant ("A Man and A Woman," My Night At Maud's," "The Conformist).
In one spellbinding scene of the film Anne asks to see scrapbooks of the couple's unfolding years. The audience is treated to snapshots of the actors in their youth and young middle aged beauty and glamour. Looking at her life in photographs, Anne is happy and satisfied, saying, "C'est long, une vie." In another scene, she takes her husband's hand and, speaking, not of the childhood story he tells her to bring comfort from pain and fear, but of their life, says, " C' tait bien."
Of course, death, especially with suffering and humiliation as our bodies betray us, is our most horrible fear - for those we love deeply as well as for ourselves; and coping with the inevitability of death, and the possibility of grave suffering, makes denial a necessary and gratifying defense. Surely if we focused on the inevitability of death every minute of every hour of every day, we would all be complete and utter wrecks. But the journey toward death and failing physicality is precisely what Heneke, who turned 70 in 2012, insists we focus on.
However, this said, I found this couple very fortunate, and I was more moved and uplifted by the fortune of their mutual devotion, compatibility and companionable sharing than shaken by their decline and their eventual demise, however sad and jolting. Yes,"Amour" gives much food for thought, much of it brutally painful. But for me its primary story is of a couple blessed with long decades together who, even when it has hurtful to others, was determined and able to live and love their way......
Anne, proud, elegant and impeccably mannered, keeps intimate sharing and close socializing at arm's length. The camera underscores this: The only time we see them outside of their roomy, cultured Parisian apartment, one replete with books, art, music, (a phenomenal reclining chaise) as well as beautiful rugs, was an evening at the concert of a student. When arriving home, George tells his wife she looks especially lovely on this evening, and he was so right: When she walked into the reception following the concert, Anne looked beautiful, elegant, proud, serene. Her response to her husband's overture was not to move closer to him. It was distancing -- and not in a playful or sensual way. If this offended her husband, the film does not capture it. We are not shown what followed this exchange, which could well have been a prelude to fulfilling closeness. Or if not, what seems to work well for them both.
At the breakfast table the morning following morning, Anne experiences the warning signs of an impending stroke, a TIA (transient ischemic attack). She becomes silent and seems in her own world. At first her husband thinks she is distancing herself as some kind of a joke or game, something he seems used to.
Since her right side was paralyzed, the operation that followed was most probably a left carotid endarterectomy. The second stroke was also on the same left side, where the speech center is in right handed people. In reality Anne would have lost her voice as well as use of her right side with the first stroke. (We see her bravely learn to eat with her left hand.) For artistic purposes, however, this horrid loss was handled in another, slower way.
What we saw prior to the second stroke, and her total decline, is that Anne did not want to discuss her feelings with her husband, a student dear to her, or her daughter or son in law (who unnerved her, for very good reason). When her student visited, she wanted him to play a piece he was unprepared for. He acquiesced. Yes, one can accurately say she was refusing pity, and holding on to her dignity. All true. But it is possible to maintain dignity, and still open up to those who reach out to you, including them in your emotional world and acknowledging that they care. What we see in "Amour," with consistency, is a woman who demands control, and whose intimacy was restricted to her husband and her music, on her terms; and this worked for her and her marriage. Yes, she could not listen to her student's recording because to do so was painful; but her decision was still a sad and depriving one, for all concerned.
Music was Anne's voice, and despite her impeccable manners, Anne did not mind putting people on the spot, quietly making demands, wanting things as she wanted them. Although this emotional pattern satisfied her and seemingly her husband, it left her daughter, Eve, who seemed never to have had an intimate relationship with either parent, isolated and rejected. It was very sad to see the accomplished Isabelle Huppert, who appears superficial but is not. This acquired facade is one I have seen again and again in the sons and daughters of parents who have time only for each other. It is but a mask of compensation for the isolation known as a child, as through their lives they have tried desperately to find some connection with each parent, but fail. Were the actions of Anne's cruel and insensitive second nurse, any more painful to her than her walls of rejection were to her daughter? And her daughter, alone at the end of the film, struggling with an unfaithful husband and in profound mourning, did not have a husband like Georges to protect her.
It is also noteworthy that Anne feared doctors. Yes, so many do, but often this has a great deal to do with one's own trust and control issues, and it impacts greatly on what he or she may expect and even demand from others. The promises Anne elicited from her husband, ones he did not want to make, came at great cost.
Anne and George lived meaningful, close, devoted, and sensual lives for decades. They had each other, and this joy for most of their adult years. There was even obvious close compatibility, with sensual overtones, as George helped Anne to move away from her bed. They knew each other's bodies, each other's motion, despite it all.......
In my psychotherapy practice of over 30 years, I have found that the most awful tragedy a couple can endure is the loss of a beloved partner. It is thoroughly heartbreaking at any age, and the profound, indescribable mourning, which I have learned is a final love letter, never can completely depart. Surely, the decline of a beloved in one's eighties is beyond painful and draining, as this film poignantly documents. But Anne and George had known immense fortune for so many, many years.
In their lives, there were no loving children, friends, grandchildren to bring escape, joy and comfort. They chose the exclusivity of only the dance and music for two that was their own; and this is the dance they had, til death parted them, but still together.......
As my husband and I left the theatre, I was jolted and saddened by the bitter, lonely words of a woman sitting near me, alone. Rising from her seat she said, partly to me, partly to herself, "I shed no tears. Lucky them. But I was the daughter they never had time for."