Amour, Not A Love Story
In the beginning of the 1960s, my friends and I all fell in love with the French film and winner of the Grand Prix, Hiroshima Mon Amour (HMA), directed by Alain Resnais who made what I remember as the first Holocaust film I had seen, Night and Fog. HMA was sui generis in its dazzling visual style and depiction of sexual passion, a film like nothing I had experienced before. What took place represented more the free associations of the interior of one’s mind than the linear narrative of films I had experienced up until that time which also portrayed deep and truly unequalled passion. But HMA was unlike the almost entirely direct linearity of Amour that I saw last evening, with the exception that Amour is told as a flashback.
Like Michael Haneke’s current Palme d’Or masterpiece, Amour, HMA is about a very intimate conversation that takes place between a couple in love, only in Amour the couple have been in love for half a century. HMA is also about memory and forgetfulness, only HMA is more of a discussion about the relationship over a day or so as the couple are separating after a brief affair. Amour takes you into the experience of loss of memories and faculties as Emmanuelle Riva, who plays the eighty something year old Anne in Amour, has a debilitating stroke and then another as we watch her deteriorate from a dignified and very classy beautiful older French woman into a helpless and totally dependent suffering vegetable cared for over some final months by her devoted husband Georges played by Jean-Louis Trintignant. I was totally embarrassed to learn when I got home from the film that the stunning and magnificent actress whom I had just watched, was the same actress fifty years later whom I had so devotedly loved in my imagination as the epitome of beauty in the sixties when I was a twenty-four year old youth.
Amour has one of the most powerful dream sequences I have every seen in a movie. Georges, the husband in this almost exclusively two actor movie, has a terrifying nightmare in which he experiences a new intrusion into his life, for death is the unwanted burglar who damages his front door at the beginning of the film and adumbrates the destruction that is about to ravage the beautiful bourgeois cultured life he and his wife, Anne, had constructed over a lifetime. He greets the threat with equanimity and some obliviousness while Anne is not only irritated by the threat but feels discomfited and very vulnerable, a sign of the emerging divisions that their two lives will now take even as they are locked together even more intimately than ever before.
However, with the exception of one humorous tale Georges tells Anne about an embarrassing funeral he attended at which the Beatle’s song Yesterday was played, there is no escaping the despair and anxiety. The nightmare is not a re-experience of a stressful event in the past that can be relieved by psychotherapeutic or psychoanalytic therapy. In the nightmare, the elevator shaft is barricaded and boarded up, and the hallway is filling with a rising tide of water. Anne and Georges are besieged. The fear is metaphysical and ontological. The sense of extreme discomfort and perilous danger and torment is only relieved when Georges awakes screaming from his demonic nightmare, much to the amazement and puzzlement of his wife Anne lying beside him. But the film is a realist nightmare, a story told with unremitting and uncompromising honesty with a total absence of weepy nostalgia. When Anne asks for the old family photo albums, she flicks through the old photos and state simply but sadly, “C’est beau – la vie.”
Unlike HMA, Amour — in its traditional but almost surrealistically realistic transfixing and tender story-telling in all its meticulous, expressive and subtle detail — almost certainly cinematically references HMA, at the very least in its obvious contrasts. More significantly, and even more than HMA, Amour aroused fear of the process of dying, despair at the ravages of the seeming helplessness of all of us as we anxiously await this end and despair of society’s apparent unwillingness to let us depart with dignity in the face of a wasting illness. Even sealed hermetically in their apartment, Georges and Anne can only preserve a wisp of elegance in the fight against the inevitability of death but the not-inevitable but socially dictated horror of the process of dying. The view of the unforgettable performances of the two stars is unflinching but restrained as we watch from the perspective of a camera kept exceptionally still in contrast to the prevailing hyper-kinetic motion of contemporary movies. The cold, clinical and chilly distancing of the director makes the details of the life of Georges and Anne even more tender without any pandering sentimentality.
Both films are about failed relationships, though on the surface Amour appears to be about the opposite. In the backdrop of Amour we are briefly over several episodes in the film introduced to the failed relationship of Georges and Anne’s daughter, Eva, who is married to Geoff, a very famous British concert pianist and serial philanderer, only in contrast to HMA, the daughter is resigned to sticking it out even though her mother can barely tolerate Geoff’s British manners and his offsetting sense of humour which Anne can only take in small doses. Georges too sticks it out as the almost ideal long love of his life deteriorates and we in the audience voyeuristically watch as even this relationship disintegrates as Georges becomes her devoted care giver as Anne sinks into progressive dementia and her hand physically withers into a gnarled limb. It is difficult to know whether watching the deteriorating relationship between Anne and Georges or the deterioration of the physical capacities of Anne is more painful and harrowing to observe.
In Amour we do not have the documentary backdrop of the portrayal of the effects of the bomb on the Japanese people for Amour takes place virtually entirely within the increasingly claustrophobic confines of the elegant and very high-ceilinged but tired-looking Parisian apartment of Georges and Anne as if to tell us that a half century love affair between two people is an exceptional thing apart. Further, unlike the constant tension between the woman and her Japanese architect lover and their distinctive points of view, cultural experiences and styles in HMA, the only tensions between Anne and Georges take place over their different experiences of Anne’s stroke and the after effects after Georges is first startled by Anne’s beautiful but serene face haunted by a vacant stare as if she was wearing a death mask. Anne subsequently cannot understand why Georges is so upset at her behaviour and why he complains about her failure to respond until she herself comes to understand that she has had a stroke when she unsuccessfully tries to pour herself a cup of tea. While HMA was about the paradoxes of love and the divisions and tensions in the powerful attraction of two people who share so little in common but love, Amour is about two older pianists who have shared a lifelong love of music and deep appreciation of one another, but even that record of deep intimacy disintegrates under the ravages of human mortality just as , paradoxically, their lives intertwine even more intimately. We may live together for fifty years but inevitably we die alone. And without music! There is no soundtrack to either enhance or detract from the visual effect except when we hear a piano performance at the beginning, another piano performance by Anne’s former pupil at their home, and a CD of Anne performing which Gorges turns off. But Georges cannot turn off this excruciating process of dying. Instead of a music soundtrack through the film, we only hear desolate silences and sounds, a tap turned off mysteriously when Anne was otherwise in a coma, Anne’s desolate muffled grunts and her cries ‘I am in pain’ as she is bathed by a nurse.
Thus, both films are about impossible, romantic and poignant love stories that we rarely see, but Amour is much more of a horror film for it shows that even when the impossible becomes real, ravages of time and mortality and death will deal even that love affair a mortal blow. As a leader in the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCND) in the early sixties, I was well acquainted with the enormous and widespread destruction nuclear weapons could and did make on human civilization and the personal lives of people, but I could still watch HMA. Now I am seventy-five years old. My brother-in-law just died and I watched the effects of pancreatic cancer on his body and spirit and the fact that his only wish to die with dignity could not be granted. Georges in Amour, with all his devotion to Anne, could also not grant her the same wish. Amour, by contrast with HMA, was just too painful and harrowing for me. I had to leave this brilliant masterpiece 30 minutes before it ended.