Sunday, February 10, 2013

Amour -- true love in old age

Director: Michael Haneke, 2012 (PG-13)

Stephen Covey, in his best-selling book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” pointed out as one habit, begin with the end in mind. Haneke does this here. A Parisian apartment is being broken into by rescue workers, only to find an elderly woman lying serenely in death, adorned with beautiful flowers in her hair. Thus, we know there will be no happy ending. The story is how we arrive at this point.

Haneke’s latest film won the coveted Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and is up for the Best Picture Oscar. It is a story of love. But you could have figured that out from the French title. But this is no Hollywood love story, with spritely and sensual lovers. Most modern love stories focus on young people. Not kids, although Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom centered on adolescents experiencing love. Usually, the hero and heroine are in their twenties, sometimes their thirties. Beyond this and it is usually a dramatic comedy of extended virginity or parental problems. But Haneke takes a different tack. He addresses love at the other end of the spectrum: geriatric love, if you will. Powerful, but austere. Sensitive, yet sympathetic. Emotional without being sentimental. And he does it all without a true musical score. There are no violins to trigger a tear or two. Instead, we can hear what is happening as though it were our apartment. The only music we hear comes from a CD player in the living room or the piano when someone plays it.

After the credits, we find ourselves looking at an audience (from our own audience seat). A crowd of Parisiens is watching and listening to a piano concerto. Unless we are aficionados of French cinema, we probably cannot recognize any faces, and are not sure who to look at. But Haneke, as in many of his films, is giving us a voyeuristic view, one that he will use as we slowly invade the home of George (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), the elderly couple in their eighties who are somewhere in the audience.

George and Anne are cultivated and cultured. Retired music teachers, they can appreciate the good things in life, such as this concert by a former pupil. How will their life and their love handle the tests of end time struggles?

Once we get to their apartment, that is where the film stays. At breakfast one day, Anne drifts off. She is unaware of George and anything else for several minutes. This is the first of several small strokes that begin the process of health degeneration that leads through paralysis to death.

The very ordinary moments of life become the means for George to demonstrate his love. With each step of deteriorating health, his love gets the opportunity to ascend correspondingly.

The atmosphere is somber. There is no magic pill, no medication that can help Anne improve. As she descends into the prison of her own immobile body, with communication becoming increasingly difficult, George faces conflict from his daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert). She wants a nurse to help or to have Anne put in a hospital or care home. George’s love, which comes out in his decision to care for her himself as much as possible, is misunderstood. And this shows clearly how hard it can be when others you care about think your path is the wrong one.

The film centers on love, a love that has lasted a lifetime. But it also centers on loss, a natural part of love and life. If we love, we will face loss at some point. It is almost inevitable. How we do so will likely be very personal, probably misconstrued, perhaps even unappreciated.

Some scenes stand out. The moment when the attacks begin was mentioned before. The first instance of bedwetting, leading to adult diapers is a clear transition point. The frustration that Eva feels when she cannot understand a word that Anne is trying to say.

Perhaps the most poignant snapshot involves a pigeon who has entered the apartment. The first time this happens, George is able to easily shoo it out. The next time, it is in the entry way, and evades George’s attempts to throw a blanket over it. But when he finally manages to do so, we wonder what he will do. Will he, in frustration harm it (as happened in Haneke’s earlier film, Cache)? But his gentle cooing in its ear, despite his immediate actions, convey the love that is still present even in the imminence of death.

Amour considers love in old age as valuable as love during the marriage. In contrast to the faithfulness George displays towards Anne, Eva mentions her husband’s infidelities, and says she still loves him even as she knows his dalliances continue.

There is no mention of religion in the whole movie. God is absent absolutely. But love is authored by God (“God is love” -- 1 Jn. 4:8). And the marriage relationship, created from the very beginning (Gen. 2:24) to bring man and woman into a loving communion that mirrors that of Christ and his church (Eph. 5:22-33), can only be sustained by self-giving love. George demonstrates this love, a form of agape love, even when it becomes sacrificial.

Despite the subtitles and the apparent lack of action, this film proves rewarding for the viewer ready invest some focused attention. It is worthy of its Oscar nominations. And Riva, now the oldest person ever nominated for a Best Actress Oscar (in the same year as Quvenzhane Wallis became the youngest person ever nominated in the same category at age 9 for Beasts of theSouthern Wild), gives commendable work in a role where she has to really work form within.

If you want a completely different perspective on what love is, find a screening of Amour.

Copyright ©2013, Martin Baggs

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