Feb 142013

Evanston RoundTable, Feb. 14, 2013

Art is what makes beauty out of ugliness, renders despair into acceptance, and creates order and understanding from chaos. Without art, life would be hard to understand and harder still to endure.

The movie “Amour” is such a work – a work of art about the most difficult subject imaginable, the death of a loved one. The subject is announced in the first scene, in which an old woman is seen lying lifeless on a bed. The room has been sealed off, and police must open windows and cover their mouths as they make their way into the death chamber, to protect themselves from the stench of mortality. Death is shown to be like a brilliant light shining so fiercely we must cover our face to see it.

The woman has apparently been there for days. Her arms are crossed and flower petals have been sprinkled over her body, a Valentine card to love, loss and suffering. It is both a statement and a question: what has happened?

The movie rewinds to the beginning to answer the question. The story unfolds of a contemporary Parisian couple, former music teachers, old but still vital and still in love. They cook, they clean, they discuss their daughter, a musician with an errant husband. They stay busy dealing with the messy vitality of everyday life.

One night they come home from a recital to find their apartment burglarized. He is matter-of-fact about it; she is upset. The next morning, at the most mundane moment imaginable – eating breakfast at the kitchen table – she goes silent, unresponsive to his increasing alarm. When she comes to, she does not remember the incident, which turns out to be a stroke.

Surgery follows, but her condition worsens. She walks with increasing difficulty and then is confined to a wheelchair. He becomes consumed with caring for her. Just the act of getting her into bed requires a clumsy dance so humiliating and yet so endearing, it can almost be considered an act of love (amour). Soon she is incontinent, cannot eat and turns away from liquids. He yells at her, “You can’t force me to let you die of thirst.” But she is fierce in her determination to end life on her own terms.

The movie’s setting is confined to the few rooms of their apartment, yet the effect is neither dull nor claustrophobic. The camera often lingers on their objets d’art – the paintings, sculptures, books and music – letting viewers contemplate their lives as if they were guests. The place is like a character at one with its inhabitants – clean, austere, stately and unadorned.

This description makes the movie sound dry and dark, like a death watch, and at times it is. But it is also rich and deep, with an unflinching honesty and a determined patience that makes us care for the couple’s unfolding tragedy.

The director, Michael Haneke, who also wrote the screenplay, paints his portrait with subdued colors and serene detachment. It’s an interesting decision to make the movie so spare. Hey may have felt the subject matter, fraught with emotion and fear, required him to set it off with the quietest of pacing, acting and dialogue.

As with all dying, stretches of boredom are set off by moments of lucidity, anger, fear and suffering. And there are a handful of scenes so terrifying and poignant we are almost forced to turn away. One involves (of all things) a pigeon, another a dream of confinement, another a slap so hard and unexpected it has the impact of a gunshot. The last is the moment of death itself.

None of this would work, of course, without great actors to make us willing to endure and care about their suffering. Emmanuelle Riva, the wife, is at 85 the oldest actress to be nominated for an Academy Award. Jean-Louis Trintignant is equally effective as her husband. Isabelle Huppert, as their grieving, confused and angry daughter, provides moments of grace and passion. All three are veterans of the French cinema, with an astonishing total of 156 years of acting and more than 300 film and TV credits and scores of awards.

Mr. Haneke has been nominated for an Oscar for best director and the movie has been nominated for best picture. It will probably win only for best foreign language film.

Never mind Oscar’s snub. “Amour” takes the viewer to the country of old age and dying, a place most approach with dread but sometimes with curiosity and humor and occasionally with desperate longing. In its stately dignity and steely honesty, “Amour” illuminates the territory and the irrevocable unwinding from life we all undergo and makes of it the one thing we never think to associate with the process – a place of beauty.

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