What a drag it is getting old
– “Mother’s Little Helper,” The Rolling Stones
With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, there is a lot of talk about love lately. When most people think about love, they think about hearts, roses and romance. Others think of weddings or children. Though the words “in sickness and health” are in the more traditional wedding vows, I think to most people that is a fairly abstract idea. When Adam Sandler sings “I Wanna Grow Old With You” in The Wedding Singer, he puts a very sweet spin on what it is like to grow old with the person you love:
The French film Amour, nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, offers a beautiful and brutal look at what growing old with your partner really looks like. Amour, unlike other films, is a glimpse at a love story as it is coming to a close; while most films portray the romance of how couples get together, this film instead shows the struggle and devotion of caring for an ailing spouse in the twilight of a relationship. For my money, Amour is a better illustration of what true love is than anything that Hollywood is currently producing.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired music teachers, living together in an apartment in France. Anne’s heath, already on the decline, rapidly deteriorates after a surgery for a blocked carotid artery goes wrong. She is now confined to a wheel chair and is paralyzed on one side of her body. Anne hates doctors and hospitals and makes Georges swear that he will never to send her back. Instead Georges takes on the role of Anne’s primary caregiver, over the objections of their daughter (Isabelle Huppert). A second stroke further damages Anne’s ability to function; she can no longer speak coherently and is completely bedridden. Georges struggles to keep his promise to his wife and to give her the care that she requires, with the help of some nurses. The film chronicles Georges’ frustration at helplessly watching the women that he loves wither away and Anne’s humiliation as her body fails her and she must be cared for like a child. Amour gives an unsentimental and truthful glimpse at the struggle that quietly plagues couples as they age.
I’m not going to lie – this isn’t the easiest movie to watch, especially if you have witnessed the strain that caring for a loved one has put on another person up close. For me, it brought back unpleasant memories of my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease and the toll that it took on my grandmother and mother. It is devastating to watch the person that you love slowly slip away – whether it is the losing of their faculties, their body slowly breaking down, or some combination – and Amour does not shy away from making the viewer feel the frustration and sadness that Georges is experiencing. This is probably a film that will become part of my YOWO club, as I can’t ever imagine sitting down to watch this again. However, as depressing as this movie is, it is also a moving testament to love. Georges reassures Anne that she is not a burden, even as her care begins to consume more and more of his time and limited energy. It is love that gives Georges the strength to continue on as each new hurdle appears. He isn’t perfect – in one scene in particular, he lets his frustration get the better of him – but he does what he can to honor his wife’s wishes and give her what little dignity that the can.
This film is carried by two powerhouse performances. Emmanuelle Riva was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress, as she should be, but I thought that Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performance was equally as fantastic. Riva has the “showier” of the roles, but the quieter work of Trintignant should not be overlooked. Perhaps it was because I was watching two foreign actors that I wasn’t familiar with, but I had to remind myself that I wasn’t watching a documentary and that these were characters. That is how authentic I found these actors; to feel the depths of emotions that I did leaving that film is a testament to the strength of their acting. Just beautifully done all around.
As I was making the transition from the darkened theater to the blinding whiteness of the snow outside, I found myself wondering if this was a movie that would ever be made in America and I’m not sure that it is. It would certainly be an independent film if it was, as I don’t know that Hollywood would tell such an unflinching story that doesn’t have what one would call a traditionally happy ending. I think there would be a tendency to make a much more sentimental film for American audiences; this is not to say that American audiences wouldn’t appreciate a film like Amour, but that studios have a very different idea of what we can handle. Hollywood tends to forget about old people all together, other than the sassy grandma meme that Betty White and others play so well. If Hope Springs is the best that Hollywood has to offer in tackling the stories of relationships as they age, it may be best that they avoid the subject matter altogether.
Some other quick thoughts:
- Amour is in French with subtitles. I used to take French, so I would try to listen to them speak to see if I could figure out what they were saying before “checking” myself with the subtitles. The moral of that story is that my French language skills have gone to pot. I was able to figure out a few things – I still know numbers and could decipher some of the more simple statements – but for the most part, I wouldn’t have known what they were saying without the help.
- There is a scene with a pigeon that didn’t make a lot of sense to me; I don’t know if I just didn’t get it or if that is something I can chalk up to being lost in translation because it was a foreign film. It wasn’t integral, but I hate pigeons so it stuck out to me.
- This film may have forced me to completely overhaul my screening process for potential husbands. Suddenly the potential to care for me in old age seems way more important than nice eyes or cool tattoos.
- Isabelle Huppert also does a nice job with her supporting role as the couple’s adult daughter.
Amour is not exactly a movie that most people will run out to see; the subject matter has the potential to be extremely depressing and subtitles tend to scare a lot of people away. I don’t know that I would have seen it in the theater if it had not received so many Oscar nominations. And while it isn’t a movie that I would necessarily say I enjoyed, it was a powerful film that was extremely moving and that deeply affected me. You are probably never in the mood for a film like Amour, but I have absolutely no regrets about seeing it. I didn’t leave the film depressed; if anything, I found myself buoyed by the idea that kind of love exists. I tend to be a cynic, but I left the cinema strangely reassured. Yes, Amour deals with an upsetting subject matter, but it is handled with such elegance and dignity that this is a film worth seeking out.