Amour, a French movie directed by Austrian Michael Haneke, is nonetheless a French movie. These are traditionally so understated and filled with lingering shots that have no known relevance to the story that American viewers may be forgiven for thinking, “Tell me I didn’t just pay ten dollars to watch a parked car for two hours!” Amour, despite its adherence to this protocol, has either won or been nominated for nearly every film award on the planet. Among the many, it won the 2012 New York Film Critics Best Foreign Film Award and the Palme D’Or in Cannes and has been nominated for five Academy Awards. And deservedly so.
The film unsparingly documents the realistic, humiliating and frighteningly tender end of a cultured, articulate and elegant life. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant, whom we remember from A Man and a Woman) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva, whom we remember from Hiroshima Mon Amour) are an elderly, middle-class Parisian couple, music teachers living quietly with books and a grand piano. Anne has a stroke, then a failed off-screen surgery, then another stroke. Her decline and Georges’ determination to care for her in their home until she dies comprise the story, and it is told with subtle mastery.
However, Georges and Anne have a daughter, Eva, played by Isabelle Huppert. Viewers learn in a few (easy to miss if you don’t read the subtitles quickly) lines of dialogue that Eva, also a musician, travels professionally with a group that is still shaken after the suicide attempt of one of its members. The suicidal woman was inconsolable after the end of her affair with Eva’s husband, Geoff. Eva is also the mother of a young son. Clearly, Eva is up to her teeth in the concerns of adult life – career and financial issues, children, marriage difficulties. There is also a vague, never-explained breach between Eva and her parents, but she does intrude (she has to intrude, as her presence is not wanted) to offer support and is clearly concerned about her father’s decision to assume the complete burden of care for the partially paralyzed and increasingly incoherent Anne.
And this is where Eva’s Boomer identity assumes significance, although more within critical reaction to the movie than in the movie itself. Eva is routinely maligned in reviews. Two examples: New York Times critic Manohla Dargis calls Eva, “…wildly self-centered,” and feels that her offers of help “sound hollow.” The Guardian states that Eva’s advice is “shaped by her own needs,” as if her suggestion that professional care for Anne is necessary somehow embodies a distasteful selfishness.
Amour is not about an adult child’s response to the decline into death of a parent, and most reviews merely mention that the part of Eva is played by Huppert. However, the vitriol regarding Eva in reviews that do address her role in the story is so skewed as to demand attention. Eva tries to establish involvement in her parents’ life with phone calls that are never answered and visits in which she is treated as an unwelcome guest. This is a tangential dimension of the film, highlighting the natural isolation of the dying, but is overlooked in analyses of Eva’s behavior.
She’s nervous and frightened by her mother’s pitiful condition, and in one scene chatters on and on about the sale of a house and the difficulty in finding another one, as bedridden and cognitively lost, Anne struggles to respond, managing to pronounce only two words – grand mère and maison. Grandmother, house. It is a last communication between adult child and dying mother, incomprehensible but not empty. Eva has offered news of her life, however superficial it may seem in comparison to Anne’s condition; Anne has made a bridge of understanding – she is the grandmother, and she understands that the conversation is about houses. The scene struck me as powerful and touching; critics saw it as evidence of Eva’s self-absorption.
There are a number of these events throughout the movie, involving potential for wildly divergent interpretations of the adult child’s (the Boomer’s) role in the lives of aged parents.
After her first stroke, when both are aware that she will decline and die, Anne forces Georges to promise that he will not hospitalize her, that he will allow her to remain at home. Georges acquiesces to her demand. The request is almost universal and haunts both spouses and adult children who, in the end, may not be able to keep the promise. But is the request realistic, or is it a version of “selfishness” that no one who is not dying dare name?
The journey of death is by definition “selfish,” as it must be traveled alone. Those facing that journey are frightened and cannot be blamed for wanting familiar surroundings. And we all live proximate to a communal “memory” of earlier times when people did die wherever they were when the time came, ideally at home amid supportive extended family, pets, livestock and neighbors. But those days are no longer the norm. Adult children often live thousands of miles from aging parents, often have (and need) work that cannot be abandoned, and children. Eva’s urging her father to place Anne in hospice care is met with flat rejection, which is Georges’ right. He has chosen to keep a terrible promise and no one, not even his daughter, may violate it. But is Eva’s suggestion merely the self-absorbed cop-out of a superficial and cowardly Boomer, or does it reflect a current, and not necessarily unkind, strategy for death?
At the end, Eva is shown silently contemplating her parents’ now-empty apartment (Georges having also vanished after Anne’s death under magical/hallucinatory circumstances that, again, may not satisfy the narrative expectations of American viewers), presumably awed, confounded or horrified by the drama that has transpired there. She may not know, may suspect, may not want to know the details from which she has been excluded all along. What she does know, as we all do at this time, is that her parents are gone. Orphaned, nothing now stands between her and the inevitable moment when she will undertake the same journey that has led them away.
Her philandering husband seems an unlikely candidate for the depth of devotion that gives the movie its name, Georges’ not-always-lovely devotion to Anne, itself an ambivalent ideal experienced by few. Eva is alone on an empty stage where a drama unavailable to her, and to most, has transpired and is gone. We know that her parents’ story is not hers. That she is aware of another, different, contemporary story does not make her “selfish.” It makes her an adult in her own time.