I am not fluent or even remotely familiar with the French language. But, after watching Michael Haneke’s “Amour” and listening to it play out four more times in the movie theater where I work, I became attuned to repetitive patterns in the dialogue. From merely listening to “Amour,” I learned the French translation for the following words and phrases:
What’s going on?
I don’t understand.
For a movie that has been praised, criticized and analyzed to pieces by writers and audience members alike, “Amour” is not a complicated film. Its themes can be parsed with the above expressions. These fragments and questions, uttered by the three main characters, are the very same that we ask, often silently and without an answer: What happens as life dwindles, and how do we react when we encounter death – or worse, experience the suffering and decline of a loved one?
Here I pose another question: If “Amour” is so straightforward, why bother writing about it? What more can I say that hasn’t already been said? “Amour” has been praised by Manohla Dargis as a “masterpiece,” scorned by Richard Brody for its exploitation of euthanasia, and rendered audiences speechless as they exit the theater, silent and stunned as a funeral procession.
The strangest reactions of all from viewers were the intermittent peals of laughter that offered momentary relief from the film’s claustrophobic, hermetic tone. It should be said that these chuckles occurred early on, when Anne and Georges are trying their best to figure out what exactly happens next – both for their relationship and for their individual, daily lives. It was clear that certain viewers could relate to this long-standing couple (portrayed with nuanced honesty by Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva). They found humor and understanding in Anne’s bluntness about her condition and her husband’s earnest efforts to accommodate her.
After I watched “Amour,” I struggled to find the right words to express the depth of emotion that this film conveys. Like many others, I can draw from personal experience. My grandmother suffered and died from Alzheimers, and my mother was her caretaker for many arduous years. It’s hard for me to remember my grandma before she succumbed to the disease, but every so often she will appear in my dreams – walking, talking, remembering my name. When Anne, immobile and suffering from dementia through the duration of the film, materializes in the kitchen at the end – standing, washing dishes, scoffing a mesmerized Georges to put on shoes and a coat before going out – I wanted to thank Michael Haneke. I wanted to thank him for conveying that moment on film without pathos or sentimentality, but with a paralyzing sense of disbelief.
So back to the question. Why write about this film? Perhaps for the same reason that audiences chose to pay money to sit in a theater and watch the brutal decline of an elderly woman: to grasp at some sense of understanding, and, dare I say, comfort. Comfort in knowing that our ends, no matter how miserable or peaceful, are being conveyed on a universal scale through cinema, which, in a strange and sad way, feels validating.
The press notes for “Amour” are spare, almost as if mocking the excess of criticism, essays, and commentaries. It consists of a cast and production list and Mr. Haneke’s filmography. There is no director’s commentary or quotes. The film synopsis is brief and blunt:
Georges and Anne are in their eighties. They are cultivated, retired music teachers.
Their daughter, who is also a musician, lives abroad with her family.
One day, Anne has an attack.
The couple’s bond of love is severely tested.
That is really all the explanation you need for “Amour.”