French Film "Amour" Explores the Dark Side of Aging and Death

“Amour” stars legendary actors Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva

When Michael Haneke’s French language masterpiece about life, deteriorating life and inevitable death was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the top prize, there was an eerie silence at the end of the screening. People didn’t react right away.

Jean-Louis Trintignant told Le Monde newspaper he was convinced the film was a “huge flop.”

Problem was the festival-goers were overwhelmed. It took time before they regained their composure and gave the director and actors a standing ovation.

When I recently saw “Amour” at my neighborhood theater, there was no one there to clap for at the end, so the audience, myself and my wife Jackie silently shuffled out the door, all of the us lost in our own thoughts. There was none of the usual chatter you hear after movies. 

To break the tension, I said to the manager, “you should provide drinks to people after watching this.”

There was a moment or two of comic relief in the film. However, its heroic portrayal of the loving, orderly world of George and Anne Laurent, both retired piano teachers, whose lives are brutally disrupted when Ann, played by Emmanuelle Riva, has a stroke and another stroke, is mostly stark and tragically honest.

As I sat watching the Trintignant character, George, attend to the ever more demanding needs of his wife, I began to worry about myself and my wife–how might our lives unfold?

When George first pushes Anne around the apartment in her wheelchair and helps her get in and out of bed, I am confident I would be up to this task and my wife would do the same for me. 

Life for George and Anne after the first stroke is demanding, but manageable. 

Ann is paralyzed on one side, but she can sit up in bed and read, she can talk and while she no longer plays Schubert on the piano she sings along with George to the child’s song, “Sur Le Pont d’Avignon.”

But then out the blue she expresses her wish to die. She mades him promise never to send her again to the hospital (and by implication to an assisted living facility, nursing home or hospice.) 

Anne desperately wants to live out the rest of her days at home.

And then she has her second stroke. She is totally bed-ridden, can’t even turn over without assistance, and only with great effort can she mumble and barely be understood. 

George’s caregiving tasks become more overwhelming. When he hires a nurse to come by three times a week I wonder if I would be able to afford this. When the nurse shows him how to change Anne’s diaper and how to give her a shower, I really start to worry. 

In a horrible moment, George strikes Anne across the face because she persistently refuses to eat. Would I lose my cool in a similar situation? 

As Anne deteriorates, I notice George is also in decline. The slight limp he had earlier on becomes more pronounced. He hallucinates and has difficulty standing.

Anne and George have a daughter Eva but she is too wrapped up in her own life to be much help. When she comes to visit she only gets in the way. 

If need be, would one of our daughters help us? 

On our way home, Jackie says at least we have each other, but wonders about her women friends who live alone. Who will care for them, she asks.

One of these very friends called Jackie the next day. She too had just seen “Amour” and was completely beside herself, depressed, in a state of despair. They talked on the phone for about an hour. 

“Amour” was nominated for an Oscar as the Best Picture, Haneke as Best Director, and Riva as Best Actress, the oldest actress to be honored this way. Trintignant should have been nominated too. 

“Amour” deserved to win Best Picture and was my choice but had little chance. It did pick up the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, so that’s something. 

Regardless of winning awards or not, “Amour” will live on. It will wind up as one of the great films of this century because better than any other it portrays what it can really be like to get old and die. 

–David Bunnell


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