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Aging in Films and Amour

Hollywood in the past often depicted aging characters in stereotyped terms: the grumpy old codgers played by Walter Brennan; kindly grandmas played by Spring Byington; founts of aged wisdom played by actors like Sam Jaffe (today played by Hal Holbrook); or the idiosyncratic, freewheeling elderly women played by Ruth Gordon. And the films usually made all of them secondary or supporting characters. I’m probably leaving out some admirable films, but I can recall only one serious mainstream Hollywood film about aging, Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow (1937). Made during the Depression, it centered on an elderly couple who after a bank takes over their home, are forced to move in with their grown children, and who are then separated. It’s an unsentimental quietly observant film, depicting the difficulties of being forced into a situation where nobody can be conceived as a villain. It turns out that the life styles of the traditional parents and the modern children are at odds, and can’t be reconciled. Make Way for Tomorrow is a low key, psychologically true, and moving work that McCarey, refusing to bow to studio pressures, fearlessly concludes without offering some miraculous way out for the elderly couple.

Amour - Jean-Louis Trintignant

However, McCarey’s film was an anomaly even in its time, when audiences were on the average older. Today most contemporary Hollywood films are aimed at teenage audiences, and films about old age would have a hard time filling the multiplexes. In fact, in 2010, North Americans ages 12 to 24 made up only 18 percent of the population, but bought 32 percent of the 1.34 billion tickets sold. Hollywood is youth-obsessed–many of the hit comedies (e.g., Hangover) are geared towards an adolescent’s notion of humor with jokes about sex, bowel movements, and the over-indulgence of alcohol as the staples. It’s hard to find a contemporary American film that deals incisively with the idea of getting old. (Of course, you could also say that it’s a rare occasion when Hollywood produces a serious film on any subject.)

Over the years, however, there have been a number of great works depicting aging from Europe or Japan– films that avoid stereotyping and mawkishness. Among them are: De Sica’s slightly sentimental Umberto D (1952), Kurosawa’sIkiru (1952), Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953), and Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957). Some more recent films centering on aging characters are less than masterworks, but are first-rate, and are psychologically trenchant. They include: Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980), David Lynch’s The Straight Story (1999), Sarah Polley’s Away from Her (2006). None of these films is a product of mainstream Hollywood.

My lists are far from inclusive. The point is that the great films about aging have usually been made by directors who aren’t American. And I’m not talking about British feel-good works like John Madden’s well crafted The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011)  filled with sparkling star turns by the best British actors, convincing us that old age provides an opportunity to transform the nature of one’s life. The film I’m thinking about is Michael Haneke’s Amour–it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes–a work in the tradition of the aforementioned great European and Japanese films.

Haneke, an Austrian, is normally the coolest and most cerebral of directors, whose best works (Code Unknown, Cache, The White Ribbon) are both formally imaginative and intellectually arresting. Haneke also usually projects a darkly pessimistic view of the human condition. However, Amour is the least formally complex–it is linear, and generally maintains the unities of time and space–and is the most tender of his films, though never mawkish or sentimental.

Amour takes place almost totally in a book and painting-filled, tasteful, lived-in Parisian apartment (a replica of the apartment where Haneke’s own parents lived).  The film focuses on two cultivated, retired music teachers in their 80s who have had a long and loving marriage and a strong friendship: Georges (the understated Jean-Louis Trintignant – The Conformist), and Anne (the still beautiful Emmanuelle Riva–Hiroshima Mon Amour), played by two great actors whose past performances remain indelible for anybody who has attended French films for the last 60 years, and who are still able to reveal a great deal about their characters without the need for dialogue.

Anne suddenly becomes ill–a blockage in her carotid artery-has an operation, which doesn’t work, and a stroke that ultimately leads to her being bedridden. Georges, loyal and totally supportive, but relatively frail, dedicates himself to taking care of her. They choose to insulate themselves from the world, except for a few visits from their daughter Eva (Isabel Huppert), who seems to have had more a formal and superficial rather than intimate link to them over the years. It may be that’s her choice, but there is a suggestion that Anne and Georges always gave primacy to their own relationship never neglecting their child, but also not making her a central figure in their lives.

At first a slightly brittle Eva breezes in, without being deeply affected, but on another visit she expresses genuine emotion over her mother’s plight, though she is at a loss as to how to be help. Georges doesn’t welcome her involvement, and is proprietary about taking care of Anne-he feels he knows best and sees it as his bailiwick, and wants no interference. There are a few other visitors: a former music student of Anne’s; the building’s concierge and wife; and two nurses brought in when Georges is overwhelmed by providing full-time care-one a skilled professional, the other insensitive and odious, whom Georges, with justifiable harshness, dismisses. So, it’s only the two of them, and the outside world is barely allowed to intrude.

Anne’s body gradually breaks down. Haneke does not shy away from the indignities of her deterioration, but doesn’t center on them. Instead, he uses a series of ellipses, which conclude with all day sleeping, moments of dementia, speech that is hard to decipher. Georges sits by her bed at night, and during the day cooks, changes her diapers, and helps her exercise. Anne maintains her dignity throughout the ordeal, but in her utter dependency she flares up at him and at herself, though their profound link is never threatened.  But though Georges may pride himself on his infinite patience and devotion, he still has a nightmare, which suggests his feeling trapped by the situation he’s in, or vulnerable to attack. Haneke constructs this nightmare like a horror film, Georges finding his hallway flooded, the elevator boarded up, and out of the dark a hand begins to choke him.

The film has a few other set pieces that break from its narrative–a lyrical montage of the couple’s 19th century landscape paintings set to classical music, and two (unnecessary?) scenes with a stray pigeon that provide a necessary aesthetic pause and release.

But on the whole, the film is riveted on the couple, never sentimentalizing their relationship nor manipulating the audience’s emotions. And there is no back-story provided about Georges and Anne’s pasts, and little explicit revelatory talk. But the actors tell us what we want to know about themselves in beautifully framed and lit long takes, medium close-ups, and two -shots.

Both are smart, sophisticated, and controlled–Georges always speaks in a measured fashion about Anne’s decline–and they clearly share a world and space that is an extension of their lives.  Georges’s eyes are alive, he is observant and watchful, and he can be sharp with others in the few encounters he has with other people, while Anne is fearless and avoids self-pity, though not despair. Anne calls him “a monster, also capable of great kindness” and we see Georges’ kindness throughout, but the monster is held at bay; unless we view Georges’ final act as a horrific one. The action comes abruptly, and throws the viewer emotionally, but it is done to end her suffering, and does not seem surprising, given Anne’s anguish and desire to die. Haneke makes no judgment.

The film sees their love as all-encompassing, and George keeps on day-dreaming of her playing piano or washing dishes (even when she’s dead)–it’s a separation he can’t live with. She’s his whole world, and although what happens to him is not spelled out, it’s not hard to imagine. But Haneke avoids providing a Hollywood catharsis through which– in his words–“false answers” are provided. He concludes the film with Eva back in her parents’ apartment silently contemplating what has occurred.

Haneke has chosen to avoid making a Social Problem-film about old age, offering no critique of the health care system or of what to do with a growing aging population. In his words, he set out to explore the existential question: “How to manage the suffering of someone you love?”

Amour is a clear-eyed work that does not shrink from the desperation it depicts, but it never indulges in any aria of despair. Still, amid all of Georges’ compassion and love, the anguish of death’s imminence is ever-present. It’s a quietly harrowing and truthful film, devoid of false notes or magical resurrections. The couple cope, as well as possible, in their own way, but the situation they face is universal and unrelenting. Amour depicts in painstaking detail what we all must ultimately confront–aging and mortality. It’s a great film.

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