Romeo and Juliet had better not have chosen to watch the 2012 French film Amour in an attempt to reach closure regarding their respective ill-timed suicides, for they are bound to exit the theatre with flustered faces, muttering, “Et tu, Michael Haneke?” The notorious filmmaker lived up to his name once again when he lured audiences with an enticing movie name, only to release the crowd with varied emotions and mindsets – some disturbed, some melancholic, some ruminative, and some nodding their heads in agreement on having watched a sensation worth the Palme d’Or which it won. After all, no one can resist the seductions of a title like Amour (Love), which ignites fantasies of candlelight dinners, passionate honeymoons, and happily-ever-afters, grouped with the bonus of it belonging to the French film industry, which further induces images of Paris – the City of Love – and the Eiffel Tower. Add a sweet octogenarian couple to the poster (who may have supposedly experienced a lifetime’s worth of memories, warmth, and intimacy), and what is not to love?
Well then, I would not be writing about pain and despair in this cleverly camouflaged romantic tragedy and its questionable fidelity to its designated cinematic name now, would I?
Perhaps I am overreacting, because not every film of this genre needs to be given a name like The Fault in Our Stars; we have had our fair share of Titanics too. Amour evokes a different kind of pathos within the viewers – such is the magic of its poignant screenplay, where the incoming vicissitude in the plot lies low like an adroit predator, and we, the helpless, entranced prey can only sense it, not see it. We clamp a hand over our mouths to stifle a sob on watching the helpless couple exchange loving gazes (the bittersweet release poster seems to exude a lugubrious aura of its own), wipe the tears which threaten to escape the corners of our eyes when a character quotes something relatable or emotional (“It’s beautiful.” “What?” “Life. So long.”), and bite our lips in discomfort on watching the uncomfortable climax unfold, where all hope and signs of humanity seem to be lost. In the end, we do not recall what prompted us to watch this gem; we only take back what the film left us with: mixed emotions. Jean-Louis Trintignant’s character Georges has never said truer words, which resonate with every film enthusiast on this planet: “I don’t remember. I don’t remember the film either. But I remember the feeling.”
Trintignant plays the male lead alongside Emmanuelle Riva’s Anne. They are an elderly couple, both retired music teachers, and the story progresses by shedding light on how their peaceful life – cherishing and loving each other – gets disrupted one day when Anne silently suffers a stroke. A surgery gone wrong leaves her completely paralyzed on her right side, confining her to a wheelchair, and later, within the claustrophobic walls of their house. Her repeated requests force Georges to keep her out of a hospital or a nursing home, leaving him with the agonizing responsibility of being her caretaker. Any hopes of her condition being temporary and of her gradual recovery are broken when his wife experiences a second stroke, leaving her demented, and accelerating her terminal decline. On one occasion, Georges tells Anne a story from his childhood, which gradually calms her down, only to get herself smothered by a pillow, the shocking perpetrator turning out to be her despairing husband.
Never before has a scene disturbed me, and yet, brought tears to my eyes at the same time like this one – where a person is suffocating their loved one in a moment of frenzy – except perhaps in Joker; only that the circumstances in each film were different. But the feeling remains the same, for empathy infests our minds like a parasite in unjustifiable moments like these. We are Anne during her dying moments, struggling to breathe as her only love attempts to end her life; struggling to win against Death and escape its lethal embrace; struggling to hold onto the weak thread of hope she had just managed to clasp with the assistance of her hypocritical husband, as the forces of the afterlife (reminiscent of gravity) attempt to pull her down. Did she get time to ponder over this sudden act of violence against her, knowing, and yet not knowing who had caused it to happen? We are the despondent Georges, who probably mustered unfathomable courage he had never felt all his life, just for this moment, when he places his weight upon the pillow to ensure that his deed is not in vain. We see his wife’s corpse through his strained, frenetic vision, a result of all those months he had to tirelessly look after her, and yet we laugh at the irony of all this, for the messianic storyteller just ended the life of his listener, who he had nearly revitalized with his love and care.
Amour is basically The Fault in Our Stars meeting Othello at a euthanasia centre, then.
I once came across a Japanese manga called I Want to Eat Your Pancreas, which, despite sounding like a zombie-apocalypse story, turned out to be a heart-wrenching tale of the relationship between an introvert and a girl afflicted with a fatal pancreatic disease (another reason why one should never judge a tale by its title). It begins on a soul-stirring note, exploring the myriad possibilities of living a joyous life for a girl who continues to kindle the flames of hope within her – using raillery and deadpan humour most of the time – despite being aware of the fact that she is only moments away from Death’s door. The bitter twist in the story comes when she is stabbed to death by a malefactor on the loose, and all this time we painfully expected her diagnosed illness to claim her life. The same shocking twist is applied in Amour, where Anne’s killer is neither the ailment that plagues her nor the supposed robber we come across in the first half of the film; it is her loving husband, with his warped perception of mercy.
One can break furniture and scream at the unfairness of these cruel tricks of God, and then calm down with the disturbing realization that death is inevitable, and we are powerless to stop it. Haneke has cleverly dealt with the polarizing theme of existential crisis, leaving his audiences to contemplate (perhaps, for the rest of their lives) about which side to root for in the universal competition between chance and fate. The film shows us that there are certain undesirable outcomes in life which we are destined to experience; however, our fate is nothing more than the result of the choices made by us and other people. Amour has not been the only romantic tragedy film which explores the debatable themes of ableism and euthanasia via the director’s seemingly nihilistic glasses; the 2016 Emilia Clarke starrer Me Before You faced similar criticism and backlash – which the former film did as well – due to its supposed underlying message of disabled people being a burden and better off dead, shrouded by the sugary veil of romance. We could dwell upon the ethics of mercy-killing forever without ever reaching a consensus regarding its morality, because the latter word is, unfortunately, subjective.
The climax indicated mutual death for both of them. What is left in life for Georges, following his wife’s demise? In a way, he dies with her. Her death means the utter loss of his sanity and peace of mind. While Georges smothers Anne, he plunges his own head into the pillow at the same time, on top of her face. This could be used to indicate the last gesture of intimacy and solidarity with his wife, even in death. Perhaps Georges wishes to die with her as well, but he cannot. In other words, Georges’ actions did not only result in murder; they also signify his mental suicide. Though it drives him mad, Georges chooses to embrace the guilt of killing her, over the shame of watching her struggle to death.
Love and death are but two sides of the same coin, and Amour studies this particular form of dualism with a fraught, piteous story, which attempts to show us how life is not a bed of roses, but with the power of the gift of love, we can determine the meaning of our lives. Love is, after all, like a rose. To allow the petals to bloom, one must always, always water the thorns.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.