Sunday, February 3, 2013

AMOUR 2/3/13

Amour directed by Michael Haneke is a movie that is very hard for me to review objectively. My father had a serious stroke and my mother at 80 years old was his main care-giver for two years along with wonderful 24 hour live-in help, and my sister and I. It was wrenching to see my father who was a retired Architect not able to talk, barely move one arm, have a feeding tube because he was unable to swallow, etc. confined to a wheelchair. He would scribble down letters that were almost indecipherable in an effort to communicate, words sliding up and down the paper. And in spite of the tragedy of this situation, I cherished those last years. My parents like the couple in the film were a very close, devoted couple. My father as opposed to the heroine in Amour wanted to live one more day just to catch another glimpse of my mother - his eyes following her around the room– that says it all.

Therefore I was surprised at how dispassionate I felt seeing this film which portrays the reality of approaching death and how it pits the will to die vs. the will to keep someone you love alive as long as possible. We first meet the two retired music teachers, entering their elegant apartment and seeing that the front door lock has been tampered with – indicating an attempted “break-in”, a bit too obvious a metaphor for all that follows. There is also a pigeon flying in and out of a window – another patent metaphor about allowing in or shutting out the vitality of  “living.”

The story continues the next morning at breakfast when the couple’s contented lives are upended by the wife (Emmanuelle Riva) staring blankly into space not responding to her husband’s questions - most probably she had a TIA (Transitory Ischemic Attack) - a forerunner of a stroke which shortly thereafter becomes a full-blown stroke paralyzing her on the left side. Though confined to a wheelchair she is still able to talk, eat and communicate, but the narrowing of one’s life that illness can envelope you with continues; soon after she experiences a more devastating stroke and this time the wife is confined to bed frustrated by her inability to communicate and her deteriorating circumstance. The tug-of-war between living and dying now seriously begins. Isabelle Huppert, their daughter who is a musician, and is constantly traveling, comes in and out of the picture with unwelcome (to her father) advice; her character gives us a more rounded picture of the “family” – grandchildren, etc as well as getting a peek at mother-daughter issues.

I found both Emmanuelle Riva’s and Jean-Louis Trintignant’s performances to be delicate, sensitive, and physically convincing. The acting was superb with its attention to exquisite non-verbal details. A halting step moments before an oncoming stroke revealed the cataclysmic brain storm ahead. Attempting to lift his wife out of her wheelchair, Trintignant holds her tightly to his chest a beat too long, speaking volumes about their past and the present. When communication is reduced to pleading looks passing between them, and the gutteral sound of a voice uttering seemingly meaningless words, we know that separation is inevitable.

On reflection, I realized that the gist of the movie is not only a penetratingly honest study of the last years of life, but also a study of a claustrophobic love relationship, and both Riva's and Trintignant’s “pride” that bordered on martyrdom. Even in a crisis the husband decided to do all the work that a nurse, physical and speech therapist  should be doing, and I tired of hearing  “pardon” (sorry) constantly being uttered by the couple to one another because naturally guilt and resentment arise out of this devastating tragic occurrence. The initial humiliation and pride in having to rely on others to tend to our most  basic needs is a fact of end-stage of life for many people. What frustrated me most with Emmanuelle Riva's character was when she was still clearly able to communicate, could read, eat, listen to her beloved music, etc. - she still wanted to die. I thought of all those people with disabilities confined to wheelchairs who go through much more than she did at that stage, but eventually accept their situation and live full intellectual and productive lives. 

 In conclusion, despite all that I have written,  I salute this film for its ruthless honesty and have to remember that  each individual copes with the abyss of the unknown in his/her own way. My response to Amour cannot be separated from my own family’s personal experience and while watching it I conceded that I was too clinical and angry. Any other emotional reaction might hit too close to home so I preferred to remain detached.

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