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Amour: No Gentle End.

Michael Haneke's Amour is indeed a great film, but it is not for the faint-hearted. We often prefer our old people to be feisty and defiant in the face of mortality. In this brilliantly acted story, however, we see the horror of a loving couple who slip further and further apart, losing everything that is best about their long life together.

IF THE TRUE MEASURE OF A GOOD MOVIE is how often and how much you are driven to think about it after you've see it, then Amour is one of the great movies of the past year, possibly the decade, but it's too soon to tell. It has certainly haunted my waking hours, and some nights I have dreamt of Jean-Louis Trintignant's achingly still face in its expressions of bewilderment and sadness. He is Georges, the man in this quietly desperate drama who cares for his wife, Emmanuelle Riva's Anne, as she sinks further and further under the weight of two strokes and the ravages of pain and dementia. No heroics here, no fanfare, no bright light at the end of the tunnel, no redemption.

This decline and death in a civilized setting is more harrowing than some scenes from Francis Ford Coppola's epic war film Apocalypse Now.

Amour opens with its ending. Firemen break down the door of a perfectly elegant Paris apartment filled with books, music recordings, and memories to find a dead woman behind a sealed door. She may have been there for some time, decomposing. The firemen force you to imagine the stench by holding their noses.

At the end of the two harrowing hours in which Anne disintegrates and Georges tries to care for her we arrive at the moment when Georges cuts the heads off the flowers--and moments later, again in the well-appointed apartment, the couple's daughter throws open the windows and the light falls once more on the books and the baby grand that had been central to her parents' well-ordered lives.

Such brilliant, convincing performances by two aging stars: Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva deserve every honour the film world has heaped upon Amour. Much as you would wish to escape their claustrophobic descent into hell, you simply cannot take your eyes from them. The film garnered a Palme d'Or and a 2012 Best Foreign Language Oscar (it was nominated in four other categories, including Best Actress in a Leading Role for the 85-year-old Riva).

Somewhere about a third of the way through the grimness of Amour, I remembered that I had first seen Trintignant in A Man and a Woman, one of the grand romantic films of the '60s, and I recalled how his face had looked then, how utterly lovely he had been, and my sadness deepened. Emmanuelle Riva had been that luminous beauty at the heart of Alain Resnais's 1959 masterpiece, Hiroshima mon amour, which I wept through in a darkened cinema in Christchurch, New Zealand.

The music of Amour--Bach, Schubert--interweaves its magic with the ghastly scenes. It is not as haunting as the music of A Man and a Woman, which I still hear sometimes, uninvited, during soppy, sentimental moments. Are there more of these as we age?

Okay, there is not a single sentimental moment in Amour, not one. After the first stroke, Anne can no longer go to the toilet by herself. There is a scene when Georges has to pull up her underwear as she holds herself upright and stares, unseeing, at the camera. Soon, he has to learn how to change diapers, rolling her inert form from side to side, and she is not looking at the audience. When she can no longer take food, he feeds her. He sings to her, still trying to steer her back to some sense of normal. When their daughter (mercilessly played by Isabelle Huppert) asks of her father: "What happens now?" He says: "What happens is what has happened until now. Then it will go steadily downhill and it will be over." He seems resigned, but we know he is terrified, trapped, trying to deal with the individual humiliations as they crop up--as is his wife. Each moment, there is less of her for him to love, and when pity takes over, we, the audience, are ready for it.

Amour separates the tame from the brave. My friends are almost equally divided between those who have seen the film and those who have not--and would not under any circumstances. Oddly, both groups want to talk about the subject of death and dying as the film portrays it, or as they imagine their own future. We discuss old age homes, forms of euthanasia, "do not resuscitate" forms, and whether doctors must follow such orders.

I once published a book called A Gentle Death. Its author, Marilynne Seguin, was an inspiring woman. She had helped hundreds of terminally ill people die without pain, surrounded by their families or friends. If no friends volunteered, she gave the farewell party herself. Years later, when she was diagnosed with cancer, she managed her own death. The debate over an individual's right to choose when and how to die is still raging in this country, but judging from a random sample of my friends, the issue will be settled by the boomers' desire for control of their own lives and deaths.

As for Amour, yes, it is a great film, but not for the faint-hearted. For those like me--who prefer their old people to be feisty, to behave badly, to cuss and roar in the face of fate, who want to laugh even at the end--there are those gentler, though lesser movies, such as Quartet, or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, or Judi Dench anywhere, any time--she is 78 for godssakes! And she is on stage in London. Or Maggie Smith. She is the best actor in the nighttime soap Downton Abbey. If that is not highbrow enough, try King Lear shouting into the storm, challenging the elements.
   Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
   You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
   Till you drench'd our steeples, drown'd the cocks!
   You sulphurous and thought-executing fires
   ... Singe my white head! 

WHEN, after seeing Amour, my friend and I left the theatre, we discussed the relative ease withwhich one can die in places like Chechnya or Mall, rather than abeautifully appointed downtown apartment.

ANNA PORTER is an author, journalist, and former bookpublisher. Her most recent book is The Ghosts of Europe:Journeys through Central Europe's Troubled Past and UncertainFuture (Douglas & McIntyre). She has recently been writing about CentralEurope for Maclean's and the Globe and Mail.
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Author:Porter, Anna
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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