by Chris Quilter
We have the best average climate in the country and it’s been cold comfort these past few weeks. Last Saturday—finally—it was warmer outside than in and Orange County celebrated by driving en masse to Laguna. Being a contrarian, I beat my way through the traffic to meet my friend Randy for an afternoon screening of “Amour.” The Edwards Westpark 8 was mobbed. Our theater not so much.
“Amour” would have played at an art house cinema back when I was a film student at NYU. We were the post-Martin Scorsese class. None of us was similarly marked for greatness, but we were serious about seeing films in languages we didn’t speak. For me, it was also a way to rise above the embarrassment of being a white bread, middle class American. Many years and great movies later, I finally could cop to how bored I was by critically acclaimed, elegantly austere, enigmatic foreign films where nothing happens very slowly at great length while everyone suffers mutely. At least the audience does.
“Amour” has all the superficial characteristics of one of those movies. It’s about Anne and Georges, retired music teachers in their mid-80s living a carefully modulated life of quiet contentment. Then Anne has a stroke and Georges cares for her during a slow drip-drip-drip of predictable indignities. It doesn’t end well. Finally. (These aren’t spoilers; the movie is told in flashback.) How did I like it? Let me put it this way: I can’t stop thinking about it.
For starters, “Amour” is impeccably acted. Anne is played by Emmanuelle Riva, more than 50 years after her art house hit “Hiroshima Mon Amour.” Georges is Jean-Louis Trintignant, who in 1966 played the hunky, hard-driving Homme in “A Man and a Woman.” (Its theme song can still be heard on occasion in elevators and on hold.) Both give eloquent, detailed performances of immense restraint.
Reticence is the movie’s hallmark. “Amour” is bleak but reserved. I don’t think anyone onscreen laughs or cries out loud. The medical issues are dealt with between scenes. The camera never intrudes. We are made to watch, and wait. And wait. These are not the conventional pleasures of movie-going. But I was glad that I (mostly) made my peace with the film’s glacial pacing, for I was bowled over by its unexpected surprises and many grace notes.
The key scene, I thought, comes early in the movie. Anne, semi-paralyzed and totally dependent on Georges, makes him promise to never send her back to the hospital or put her in a nursing home. Without raising her voice, she also tells him that she doesn’t want to live in the state she’s now in. In response to what she is implicitly suggesting, he asks how she would feel in his place. It’s a question she can no longer think about, she replies. She can’t press the matter either, and they never talk about it again. Their tragedy is to be soul mates who never seem to have needed to bare their souls.
“Amour” isn’t a message movie. Yet if it doesn’t make you think about how you want your final scenes to play out, you either are willing to leave everything to chance, or are in denial, or have already made your life and death decisions. I am somewhere in the middle of this muddle, so the moral of the story for me is to get my end-of-life ducks lined up while I can—and make sure that the people I love understand what I want. If I keep forgetting to remember to do this, how can I hope to spare myself (and them) the preventable, pointless suffering that Anne and Georges endure?
Randy and I and the rest of the matinee audience—shell-shocked seniors mostly—left Theater Two with the cold wind of mortality at our backs and with at least two of us in dire need of a drink. Is it any wonder most of us prefer comfy movies about old age of the “Marigold Hotel” sort? There is nothing comfy about “Amour.” That’s what makes it worth seeing. We need an occasional reminder that life doesn’t come with a Bollywood ending.
Chris Quilter is on the board of Laguna Beach Seniors. He also mis-numbered the answers to the quiz in his previous column; a corrected version is online. He knows it was William Safire and not Emma Lazarus who coined the phrase “nattering nabobs of negativism.”