All too often, a funny thing happens on the way out of the movie theatre: a friend or family member will offer up some post-viewing comment which makes me think, “Did we just watch the SAME movie?” These are not just matters of taste; it comes down to meaning and interpretation.
The problem, I think, is the writer’s brain. I can’t turn it off–even when I’m reading or watching something for pleasure. I’m always looking at the structure and probing for symbolism and deeper meaning. Good stories don’t waste words, and good films don’t waste them either–every angle and pause is deliberate, every breath of dialogue carefully planned.
This is definitely the case with “Amour,” the winner of the 2013 foreign language Oscar.
(If you’ve not yet seen this amazing film, come back later once you have, as massive spoilers abound) 🙂
I’ve read several reviews that praise the film for its unflinching portrait of old age, sickness and death. They all claim that the film has a kind of universal appeal in its themes of love and loss, and indeed, the title “Amour” (love) suggests all of these on the surface. Yet, this film is so much deeper than people give it credit for. This is an exploration of the best and worst aspects of love.
Anne and Georges are depicted as a devoted, loving couple–they are intellectual equals whose conversations reveal much about the depth of their relationship. As the film chronicles the steady decline of Anne’s health due to multiple strokes, it also shows the gradual shift in the way these two individuals interact. Anne used to be articulate and witty, warm and wise. By the end of the film, she is reduced to guttural moans and incoherent babbling. Georges’ role has shifted from partner to caregiver, and it is this transformation that reveals the most about his character.
There is a subtle hint embedded in an early conversation between Anne and Georges. She teases him about his sudden sentimentality: “You’re not going to ruin your image, are you?” When Georges presses her, she says “You’re a monster sometimes.” This seemingly innocuous line foreshadows what this husband will become later in the film. As Anne grows sicker and sicker, Georges behaves monstrously–to her, and those around her.
As the audience, we are predisposed to feel sympathy for him. He is losing the woman he loves, after all. When he fires one of Anne’s caregivers, claiming that she mistreated his wife, we want to take his side. However, the film offers no objective evidence of abuse: the nurse claims that she has been purely professional and that none of her other clients have complained. Later, Georges refuses to allow his daughter to see her mother or participate in her care. Some may interpret this as bravery, or the desire to shoulder this tremendous burden alone. But this behavior is also suspicously selfish. Georges does not seem to consider that his daughter also loves Annes (and him). He dismisses her feelings and input, even when the issue of Anne’s comfort and well being is raised.
Part of the genius of this film lies in the title. That Georges loves Anne is unquestionable. But the Anne he loves is the woman he married, the woman whose fingers flew gracefully across the keyboard of the grand piano in their parlor. There is a moment when Georges imagines Anne as she was in better days. He listens to a recording on CD and pictures his wife playing instead. He wants this Anne back, not the dying creature in their bed who barely recognizes him.
The film raises an interesting question: when Georges smothers Anne, is this love? Wedding vows are supposed to connect the couple “in sickness and in health.” What is it that Georges sees when he looks at this shriveled husk of a woman? Does he see the wife he loved, or does he see a reminder of what he lost? He goes about the preparations for his suicide casually, with the detached calmness of one who has already made up his mind long ago. He buys flowers and strews them upon Anne’s body after he has carefully dressed and posed her. The opening image of Anne stretched out in bed, surrounded by flower petals, recalls the creepy imagery from stories like Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”. Finally, Georges tapes up the doors and windows of their home, then waits for the gas to do its work . This is a pre-meditated murder-suicide, and the only thing that briefly interferes is the appearance of a bird in search of a few crumbs.
Ordinarily, when a man kills his lover and then himself, this is a crime of obsessive passion and possession. “If I can’t have you, no one else will” is the oft-cited cliched logic behind such actions. In his heart, the murderer believes he “loves” his victim. Is Georges really any different? The stroke is taking Anne away, just as a rival suitor might. In his last moments before he dies, Georges imagines himself getting what he has wanted all along. He gets Anne back, in perfect health, and the two of them leave the flat, presumably to spend eternity together.
But the film does not end here. It goes back to reality: a grim final shot of Georges and Anne’s daughter, dressed all in black (presumably after the funeral for her parents). She enters their home and sits in silence. What must she be thinking, or feeling? Her father murdered her mother, then committed suicide. The film seems to ask again, is that “love”?
Death is inevitable, but this ending was not. Writer Julian Barnes recently mentioned that when his beloved wife passed away, he considered suicide but decided against it. She had a brain tumor, but he did not try to end her suffering by smothering her. Instead, he decided to keep on living and loving her, declaring himself “her principal rememberer.”
“Amour” is a challenging, multi-layered film that haunted me for weeks afterward. It is not so much a tribute to love as an examination of its definition.
Appropriate Keane song of the day: “The Lovers are Losing”