The French-language film Amour won last year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and it has been widely reviewed and praised. But since it has just become available on Netflix, some more words about it seem appropriate.
As the title suggests, the film is about love, but a very different kind of love than we are used to seeing depicted. It is about old love, not young love. It reminded me of words that Dorothy Day—one of the five “great reformers in American history,” according to President Obama—once wrote: “If we could only learn that the only important thing is love, and that we will be judged on love—to keep on loving, and showing that love, and expressing that love, over and over, whether we feel it or not, seventy times seven, to mothers-in-law, to husbands, to children—and to be oblivious of insult, or hurt, or injury—not to see them, not to hear them. It is a hard, hard doctrine.”
As we watch the two-hour film, we see that for Georges (played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who played a young widower in A Man and a Woman, one of the post popular love stories of the 1960s) love is indeed “a hard, hard doctrine.” It is so because his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, star of the 1959 film, Hiroshima Mon Amour”) suffers successive strokes, and he cares for her in their Paris apartment. He feeds her, comforts her after she wets her bed, and later, as things get worse, changes her diaper. Of Anne’s love for Georges, we see glimpses of it, but as her condition worsens he, by necessity, becomes the more active “lover.” Her words and actions give us some idea of what is going on inside her head and heart, but for the most part we can only guess.
Fifty years ago my wife, Nancy, and I exchanged wedding vows that included the promise “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” How little did we imagine in those glowing days of young love what “worse” might actually mean some day! Watching Amour together, fifty years later, we have a much better idea—and greater fear. For although we are both now in good health, we both realize that before too long the story of Georges and Anne could be our story, with either one of us being the afflicted one.
As loving as Georges is, he becomes irritable and frustrated at times, even slapping Anne on one occasion—one of the great virtues of the film is its unflinching realism. And the “hard, hard” part of his love is not only struggling with the everyday difficulties of caring for a stroke victim, but deciding what is the best and most loving way of seeing to Anne’s needs. She asks him to promise not to send her back to a hospital and later tries to die by not eating and drinking, occasioning his slap. He does employ a part-time nurse, for a while two of them, to help him care for her in their apartment, but the main burden remains on him. Adding to his difficulties is the fact that he has no family help. His daughter, Eva, played by the great Isabelle Huppert, lives out of town and just occasionally flits in and out, giving unhelpful advice.
Part of the film’s suspense is wondering what he is going to do. We know from the very beginning she is going to die, for the movie begins with her lying dead on her bed. But we do not know how she dies and whether or not he assists her in dying. Great movies are often thought provoking. And Amour brings to mind all the controversy about assisted suicide. We think of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who was sent to prison for helping dozens of the terminally ill end their lives, and the debate in various states about enacting laws similar to the Death with Dignity Act passed by Oregon in 1997.
Despite the depressing subject matter of the film, there are some transcendent moments. Georges and Anne were music teachers. Early in the film, we see them attending a classical piano concert of one of Anne’s former pupils, Alexandre, and later on he visits them in their apartment and sends them a CD of his music. It is clear that the old couple enjoy one of the great pleasures of old age, witnessing the success and gratitude of someone who will probably live on for many decades after their deaths.
Life, death, aging, for all that has been written of them, remain great mysteries. Shakespeare wrote of the “seven ages” of man, ending with the
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
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Robert Frost summed up the “Span of Life” with “The old dog barked backwards without getting up / I can remember when he was a pup.”
Robert Browning has his “Rabbi Ben Ezra” optimistically proclaim:
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made. . . .
But after seeing Amour, we find it difficult to share Browning’s optimism.
And yet, another optimistic poem dealing with aging, Tennyson’s Ulysses, speaks to something deep within us as the old warrior Ulysses speaks to his old mariners:
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Like the old Ulysses, those of us who are old still have “some work of noble note” that “may yet be done.” Knowing that our days are numbered—maybe months, maybe years, but at most a few more decades—there is still much for us to do. As Dorothy Day so clearly saw, the main thing is love.
It may be a “hard, hard doctrine,” as it was for Georges in Amour, but if so it is all the more heroic, more a true test of character than the young romantic love we once experienced. And then there’s the love we should have for all those who will probably outlive us for many decades, including our children and grandchildren. What could be nobler than trying our hardest to leave them a Planet Earth as peaceful, just, and sustainable as possible?
Walter G. Moss
Friday, 23 August 2013