Earlier this week, I went to an off-Broadway play and, before the show began, a pair of sixtysomething-looking women sitting next to me were discussing Amour, the Oscar-nominated drama about an elderly couple.
“I’m not going to go,” said the first. “I hear it’s way too depressing.”
“Who needs to see that?” replied her companion. “We’ll be living it soon enough.”
I almost butted into their conversation to urge them to go to the movie. I’d have told them that, yes, Amour is bleak, but it’s also, in an admittedly disquieting way, refreshing. What they’d see up on the movie screen is old age and illness the way it is, unvarnished, rather than the usual cutesy-poo Hollywood fantasy of spry, peppy, cussing ol’ codgers.
Amour is a haunting drama about what happens to an elderly couple in Paris when one of them becomes ill. Veteran French stars Jean-Louis Trintignant, 82, and Emmanuelle Riva, 84, portray a long-married pair, both music teachers. One morning at breakfast, the wife has an episode where she suddenly becomes non-responsive, awake but apparently unable to speak or hear.
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It turns out she has a blocked carotid artery. She has an operation but ends up partly paralyzed and in a wheelchair, which she hates. In an especially heartbreaking scene, her husband lifts her from the chair to a standing position to help her move elsewhere and, for a brief moment, as he holds her up, it’s almost as if they’re dancing together.
The wife’s health continues to decline and soon both her mental capacity and ability to speak diminish. Their once full life of concerts and visits with friends is over, their days and nights now circumscribed by the walls of their Paris apartment and, for the wife, their bedroom. The husband takes care of her. Their adult daughter (Isabelle Huppert) visits, but isn't especially helpful.
The couple love each other but that doesn’t make all this any easier. Quite possibly, that kind of deep love only makes the ravages of age and illness and knowing the end is coming all the more difficult because it cuts so deeply.
Made by Austrian-born director Michael Haneke, the movie received five Oscar nominations: Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actress (for Riva, who celebrates her 85th birthday on Feb. 24, the same day as the Academy Awards).
If there were a senior category for the Oscars, Amour would sweep. As is, it likely will win Best Foreign Language film.
That is, if Oscar voters sit through Amour — and that’s not a given. It is not an easy film to watch, especially considering the 62-year-old median age of the nearly 6,000 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Amour hits a little too close to home for most boomers. We may not yet be quite where the movie’s couple is in terms of age and health, but we know it’s waiting around the bend. And most of us have already seen our parents, or surely our grandparents, go through something similar.
The movie forces you to confront the inevitability of your own decline and mortality, something none of us ever want to do. It poses tough questions about the end of life, questions most of us aren’t ready to contemplate closely or answer.
Instead, we stick to magical thinking. It’s just easier, despite way too much evidence to the contrary, to believe that we’re going to painlessly drift off in our sleep somewhere in our 80s or early 90s, never having been sick for a day before that.
And why not? That’s the way it always happens in the movies — until Amour.