I won’t ever forget the last time I spoke with my Grandpa. He didn’t get out of bed too often in the last few months of his long life, and although he wasn’t terminally sick yet on that day, I knew it was only a matter of time until the next illness would just be too much. I knelt beside his bed and held his hand. We talked about fishing, chasing pretty girls, and whether I could help him “go sue some people;” nothing of much consequence, yet nothing of greater significance. I sat next to him until he was getting noticeably tired from talking, I told him that I loved him very much, and when I walked out of the room I knew in my heart that it would be the last time I saw him.
In Amour, recently nominated for Best Picture for this year’s Oscars, director Michael Haneke explores the universality of this type of experience, and portrays the realities of aging and death in a way few films ever have.
An aging but vibrant middle-class French couple, Georges and Anne (Jean-Louis Trintignant, and Emmanuelle Riva, who was Oscar-nominated for her role) experience misfortune when Anne suffers a stroke one morning at the breakfast table. This comes as no surprise to the viewer, since a sequence at the beginning of the film shows firemen breaking into the couple’s Parisian flat to find Anne’s dead but delicately arranged body on the their bed, covered with flowers and dressed in fine clothing.
We know that life has taken its course with Anne, what we don’t know is how her stroke affects her life, as well as Georges, their family (a middle-aged daughter played by Isabelle Huppert), and acquaintances as her condition deteriorates throughout the film. No stranger to depicting harsh realities throughout his oeuvre, Haneke doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable truths of terminal care; we see long sequences of Anne attempting menial tasks such as opening a book or putting on her reading glasses with her one good arm, and Georges assisting her into and out of her bed and wheelchair. As she becomes less and less able to take care of herself, Georges must help Anne with her restroom, feeding, and speech therapy needs, and one particularly painful sequence involves a nurse giving a mentally detached Anne a sponge bath while she murmurs “hurts” over and over.
Riva and Trintignant are brilliant in their roles, but Haneke’s direction is what allows them to shine, and is what made the film so magnetic to me. Haneke films always take a bit of a voyeuristic approach, and his commanding presence behind the camera can tend to feel as though he is a character himself in the film. The story contains such specificity that it could only be told by someone with first-hand experience. Every shot he takes, every movement by an actor, every line of dialogue, every set piece or costume choice, is deliberately chosen and painstakingly considered. The precision on display is simply unparalleled in 2012 cinema.
Haneke captures this surrealism expertly. Although I do feel that I was able to reach some closure on the last day I saw my grandpa, the surrealism of it is what I remember most about that experience. At that moment, I looked around the room that my grandparents had lived in my entire life, and thought about how the furniture, decorations, picture frames and such were mostly the exact same as they were in my first memories of that home, and would continue on just as they always had. Like in the movie, it felt harsh and unfair, as though the place that sourced so much love and happiness over the years couldn’t be bothered to trouble itself with the frailty of its own beating heart, and the inevitable sadness it was soon to host.
A scene near the film’s end shows a pigeon that flies into Georges and Anne’s flat from their courtyard and begins poking around, and although literary devices are used sparingly in this film, the symbolism is well-executed here. The pigeon is confused, and not really looking for a way out, but trying to cope with the unnatural state it finds itself in.
I suppose all of us are.