I saw Amour last night at The Picture House. This unique Art Deco cinema unfortunately shows bog-standard Hollywood product most of the time, just like any multiplex, but first Mondays of each month are given over to more interesting films, some foreign.
And you couldn’t get anything less Hollywood than this French language film from 2012, about the physical and mental decline of an elderly woman after a stroke, and her husband’s dogged determination to look after her.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) are retired Parisian music teachers, still in love with each other after a lifetime together, with a daughter, Eva (Isabelle Huppert), who has a career in music. We know what will happen in the end because the opening scene shows firemen breaking down the door of their flat and discovering Anne’s body in a sealed room, laid out for a funeral. There’s no sign of Georges. Following that, we see them together in an audience, watching a Schubert concert given by one of Anne’s star pupils. Then we’re in the flat as they return home, and we never leave it again.
At breakfast the next morning, Anne has a stroke. After leaving hospital, she returns home in a wheelchair. Then she has another stroke, becoming bed-ridden, incontinent, and sliding into dementia. The decline is inexorable, though there are small victories. There’s a palpable sense of joy as Anne learns to use a new, motorised wheelchair, where she’s in control of her movements, instead of being wheeled around by Georges. And there are visits by Eva and the music student whose concert they attended. But it’s all too temporary.
The title – Amour – perfectly expresses the love they feel for each other, and Georges’ sometimes exasperated care for Anne as she slips away from him. He won’t let go, refusing to let her die of thirst and hunger when she won’t eat and drink. It’s a shock when he slaps her and forces her to drink. This is love at its most essential and most brutal.
Ultimately, he smothers her with a pillow, finally granting her own request to die. This scene is unexpected, peremptory, after Georges has assuaged Anne’s mental pain by telling her a story about his life as a child. The violence is deeply unsettling, as her body kicks against death. A Hollywood treatment would have given Anne a moment in her old persona to persuade Georges to end her life, and edited out her death throes. Here the Anne he knew is gone, and we must accept the possibility that he kills her in part because he cannot take any more.
All this takes place within the claustrophobic confines of the flat, orchestrated by the distinct sound effects of their life together – the clicking of plates, running of taps, the everyday domestic sounds, including Georges lifting Anne from wheelchair to armchair or bed. No incidental music. The intimacy forces you to be in the flat with them, whether you want to or not. This is an intensely physical film. Every action is fully acted out, almost like a documentary – there are no cinematic segues to cover what another director might deem an uninteresting or trivial event. Each scene plays itself out in full, followed distinctly by another, as in a slide show.
Along with the physicality, there are the facial expressions of Georges and Anne. You know what they’re thinking, even though the dialogue is mostly concerned with superficially mundane matters. Anne’s look of pure hate at being force fed speaks volumes. Eva is far less expressive, almost emotionally stunted, suggesting that her parents’ love for each other may have been so overwhelming that it left too little to encompass their daughter. Certainly, Georges resents her wanting a decision in her mother’s care, though Eva’s attempts at engagement are fitful, as if prompted by duty.
Within this bleak, matter of fact tale, is the mystery of Georges and Anne’s love, shining through their performances without a trace of sentimentality, sometimes modulated by frustration and anger. There are other mysteries. The pigeon who flies in through the courtyard window suggests a psychopomp, come to guide Anne’s soul to an afterlife. And despite being dead, Anne returns to free the now very frail Georges from the flat (and from a miserable life, as he did for her), after first doing the washing-up. The flat almost becomes a kind of Limbo.
Amour is an emotionally rich, bleak, beautiful film. I urge you to see it.